Adversity. The final measure of any sports team is not how they play when everything is in their favor, rather it is how they respond when faced with overwhelming odds. And that's precisely what the Orange face going into Sunday's game. The odds have been stacked against the Orange in terms of their available personnel and also their play on the court.
The beginning of the bad luck actually started last year when Mike Jones took his ball and went home. Jones was a dynamic athlete whose shooting stroke would be a welcome addition to this team. Then Andy Rautins, who was one of the more improved players in the Big East as a sophomore, blew out an ACL playing for Team Canada over the summer.
Once play started this year, senior guard Josh Wright pulled a Houdini that would have made Mike Jones proud. Then in the ultimate irony Eric Devendorf went down with a season ending ACL injury the next day, so Wright's chance for more playing time never materialized
To top it all off, little used forward Devin Brennan-McBride called it quits on his basketball career due to a reoccurring shoulder injury. At this point, you almost show up to every game holding your breath until you've had time to do a head count to see how many players are suited up. The answer right now is 8 scholarship players, but would it surprise anyone more bad luck befell the Orange? I think not.
So how dire is the situation? Well, simply put, if the Big East tourney started today, Syracuse would not be making the trip to New York. After opening the Big East with two home wins over bottomfeeders St. Johns and South Florida, the Orange have struggled mightily with the exception of a blowout victory over the league's other bottomfeeder (Rutgers). At this point, Syracuse has proven it can beat really, really bad teams, but not much else. Statistically their best win came in the season's second game against St. Joseph's in a game that almost slipped away had it not been for Jonny Flynn's late heroics. Wins over Virginia and Washington look decent from a "name" basis, but neither team is in a favorable position to make the NCAA tourney.
It all adds up to a heck of a lot of work to be done if Boeheim wishes to avoid a second consecutive season of (gasp!) NIT action. So how to turn the season around? There is no easy answer, but one thing is for sure, Syracuse MUST beat Providence.
A win over the Friars would allow Syracuse to move out of the league's bottom four teams in the standings. Providence enters the game with a respectable 12-6 overall record and stand at 3-3 in league play after opening with a pair of losses at Marquette and DePaul. They lost their last game at home to Seton Hall, but sandwiched in between were a trio of wins that included an impressive 77-65 road thrashing of Connecticut. So much for the hope that they can't win on a quality opponent's home floor.
Tim Welsh has a pretty athletic and talented squad. While they are not a top 25 type of team, they are more than capable of walking into the Carrier Dome and escaping with a victory. The balanced lineup features 5 double digit scorers, one of the league's best "all-purpose" players in Geoff McDermott, and a roster that can place 4 perimeter shooters on the floor at any time. Indeed, perimeter shooting has been the single biggest factor in the outcome of the Friars' Big East games. In their three loses, they have connected on only 27% from beyond the arc, but in their wins they are just a shade under 50% at 31-63 combined.
So the first goal for Sunday is obvious. Stop the Providence perimeter attack. That means containing Dwain Williams, who is hitting 60% on his threes in league play. That means stopping Brian McKenzie, who has made 38 of 83 attempts from beyond the arc (45.8%). And that means locating Jeff Xavier who has knocked down a team-leading 46 threes. Not to be overlooked is Weyinmi Efejuku, who is the least prolific of the quartet but is nevertheless shooting 35% from three with 21 makes on the season. In all, Providence makes more than 8 threes per game and has launched roughly 35% of their total shots from deep. To put it in perspective, they've only shot 2 more free throws than 3-point attempts.
Fortunately, Syracuse has been much better at defending the three point shot since Big East play started. After giving up triples at a truly horrific pace through the first 12 games (7 games with more than 10 triples allowed), Syracuse has held Big East opponents to only 29.5% shooting from behind the line. Only West Virginia, which hit 9 of 24 attempts, has made greater than 35% against SU in league play. Even so, Big East opponents have still made 20 more triples than SU, which amounts to a 60 point differential. Clearly lack of perimeter shooting on Syracuse's side has been one of the biggest reasons for the sub-.500 Big East start.
The second goal for Syracuse will be to improve offensive execution. Three issues need correction here - turnovers, shot selection, and team play.
Regarding turnovers - Syracuse has committed 17 ballhandling miscues a game over their last 4 contests. The Orange must value the ball more to ensure that they are not giving away possessions.
Regarding shot selection - Syracuse has been absolutely killed by taking too many long jumpers early in the shot clock (see: Greene, Donte). When these shots are missed, they translate into give-away possessions, and they often come with an unbalanced floor which leads to limited offensive rebounding situations and multiple fastbreak opportunities for the opposition.
Regarding team play - Syracuse has struggled with team passing and team court spacing in Big East play. The last 4 games have seen SU post a 63:78 assist to turnover ratio, but 1/3rd of those assists came in the win over Rutgers. In losses to WVU, 'Nova, and Georgetown, the SU offense has repeatedly degenerated into one-on-one play with little work towards spreading the floor and making sure everyone gets touches.
In reality, all three of these factors are inter-related and have a lot to do with SU's lack of perimeter shooting, which in turn has a lot to do with the loss of Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf for the season. Without a designated shooter on the court to spread the defense, the SU offense has all-to-frequently gotten jammed up. This allows helpside defenders to cheat on the dribble penetration of Flynn, Harris, and Jardine, so they are all getting stripped more often than they would if a deadly shooter was lined up on the wing beside them.
The lack of shooting options on the perimeter also makes things tough for Arinze Onuaku, who is often double-teamed because the opposition does not have to worry about his passing to a perimeter shooter. Fortunately Onuaku made great strides in his passing game against Georgetown as he registered 5 assists. He will need to continue this trend to help the Orange get better shots.
In any event, Syracuse needs to be mindful of keeping the floor as spread as possible. How they are going to manage to do that with limited offensive options remains to be seen, but if they can't do it against a team like Providence, it is unlikely they'll be able to do in the brutal closing portio of the schedule.
Prediction: Syracuse has had 5 days off since the loss to Georgetown, which can only be a good thing. The starters played 209 out of 225 minutes in that game, so the rest should do the team a world of good. Boeheim has had multiple teams start the Big East conference season with a losing record through 6 or 8 games, since Big East play started in 1980-81, he's finished under .500 only ONCE. So history says that he makes some adjustments and gets his team ready to play on Sunday and for the rest of the conference season. Look for Syracuse to play a more focused and under control game and come out with a victory on Sunday. That is, unless players keep dropping like flies... Syracuse 74 Providence 69