Road Woes. Coming into Sunday, Big East road teams had won only 20% of their games (6-24). This record of futility was made worse when Syracuse was hammered 81-61 at West Virginia to drop its second consecutive conference away game. People can site all the computer rankings and strength of schedule statistics they want, but you can throw those numbers out when you go on the road in the Big East.
Syracuse trailed West Virginia by only one point at 13-12 when Donte Greene banked in a fading three point bomb midway through the first half. Truth be told, it was a horrible shot that was lucky to ricochet off the backboard and find its way through the rim.
The shot did nothing to discourage Greene's horrific shot selection, and the Mountaineers used it to their advantage as he continued to fire up, and repeatedly miss, difficult off-balanced long range jumpers. Heading the list of his horrible shots was a quick-trigger three pointer that he missed with 23 seconds (and a full shot clock) remaining at the end of the first half. This miss resulted in a 5 point swing, as John Flowers' tip-in at the buzzer completed a West Virginia 22-8 run and sent the Orange into the locker-rom with a huge 15 point deficit.
Greene surely wasn't the only Syracuse player to fall victim to terrible shot selection, but his errors in judgment were certainly the most egregious. SU's inability to work the ball for good shots was contrasted by WVU's patience and composure. The Moutaineers assisted on 17 of 29 made baskets, while the Orange had only 8 helpers on 22 field goals. Another indication of WVU's ability to control the tempo and pace of the game was their +8 turnover margin, as Harris, Flynn, and Jarine combined to cough the ball up a staggering 14 times.
Any thoughts of an SU comeback were quickly squashed as WVU came out of the lockerroom just as focused as they had been to start the game. An 8-2 run over the first minute and half of the second stanza extended their lead to 21 points and the game was effectively over. Syracuse fans hoping for their team to take and stand and make a run were deeply disappointed, as the Orange were unable to get closer than 15 points at any point after the break.
Syracuse was bested in nearly every facet of this game. The Moutaineers used strategy, technique, and solid court awareness to combat SU's reliance on athleticism and not much else. Where Syracuse played out of control trying to force a fast pace, West Virginia was slow and methodical. Where Syracuse tried to rely on one-on-one moves and quick shots, WVU worked the ball with dribble penetration or passing until gaining an advantage on the SU defense. Where Syracuse got beat going for flashy steals and highlight blocks, WVU played position defense and beat the Orange players to their spots on the floor. To top it all off, WVU just played tougher than the Orange. Seemly every time the ball was up for grabs, a Moutaineer player would come out of the scrum with the ball.
Wellington Smith wrestles the ball away from Paul Harris.
This was clearly one game in which the classic zone vs. man to man debate can be thrown out the window. The Syracuse players were equally bad in both defenses. The zone was simply unable to cover anyone on the perimeter, as Alex Ruoff sank 7 of 11 three point attempts and Joe Alexander diced up the zone with mid-range shots. The man-to-man was equally as bad with Syracuse unable to provide anything remotely resembling helpside defense. WVU players such as Joe Alexander (13 pts, 6 rebs) and Da'Sean Butler (13 pts, 6 rebs) both routinely got by their defenders and met no resistance at the hoop. Darris Nichols (17 pts, 6 ast) was outstanding attacking the basket, hitting mid-range floaters with ease.
Darris Nichols speeds past Paul Harris to score on a teardrop shot.
1) Donte Greene's shot selection is terrible. He needs to understand that firing up an offense-balanced 25 footer is acceptable with 5 seconds on the shot clock, but not with 30 seconds on the shot clock. The truly disappointing aspect of the game is that it seems he was never called to task for his parade of poor shots that led to wasted possessions. He did settle down somewhat in the second half and started passing the ball, dumping it down to Onuaku (15 pts, 7 ast), but it was too little too late.
2) It took Syracuse about 25 minutes to realize that the 'Neers had no one to handle Onuaku. Unfortunately, some sloppy entry passes led to turnovers, and even when Onuaku was dominating the interior, he was unable to guard anyone on the other end. Huggins utilized a small lineup that took advantage of Onuaku, as guys like Wellington Smith and Da'Sean Butler repeatedly drove around Onuaku or fired up uncontested jumpers.
Arinze Onuaku struggled to defend the smaller WVU players on the perimeter.
3) Usually when 4 players finish in double figures, you expect the team to top 75 points, but in this case Harris, Flynn, and Greene finished with between 10 and 12 points. I was waiting for Greene to pull his best Jose Canseco and tack on a string of meaningless stats (like he did against Cincinnati), but it never came.
4) This team lacks real understanding of defensive fundamentals. They give up dribble penetration much too easily, which unbalances the floor and results in 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 advantages for the other team. Joe Alexander repeatedly drove by Donte Greene and Da'Sean Bulter had little difficulty in getting past Harris. The Orange players are also very poor at providing helpside defense to make up for their teammates' mistakes.
5) Jonny Flynn is a great talent but he is finding life in the Big East to a completely different beast than non-conference play. Flynn is just 1-9 from three point range over the last two road games and today he posted a putrid 1 to 6 assist to turnover ratio. Big East teams are simply more physical and better at providing helpside defense to close out driving lanes. Flynn's ability to "make it up on the fly" is somewhat negated by the more athletic defenders in the Big East, so he needs to play smarter and stronger.
6) Despite the rough two game road swing, look for Syracuse to play better at home on Wednesday night. Rutgers has never beaten the Orange in the Carrier Dome and the freshman all seem to shoot much better at home.
7) I'm still convinced that Syracuse has NCAA tourney level talent, but this team needs to grow up quickly and shed the "inexperience" excuse or Boeheim will be in for his 2nd consecutive NIT invite and 4th consecutive year without an NCAA tourney win. They are not going to beat people with defense, so the offense needs to get re-focused, and soon. It all starts with sharing the ball and taking better shots.