The defense looked ragged at best last year and Jim Boeheim's squad slogged through a disappointing, injury-filled campaign.
With a new season came new hope, however…in the form of returning marksmen Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins. Both were set to return in 2008 from torn ACLs and there was reason for optimism. Rautins played exceptionally well with Team Canada, matching up against some of the world's biggest stars in the Olympics. Eric had his swagger back. And to most fans' delight, Donte' Greene left Syracuse for the (supposedly) greener pastures of the NBA.
‘Cuse fans were excited to say the least. Some of the most rabid and vociferous supporters in the country, the Orange faithful clamored for a tourney bid. The preseason consensus seemed to have SU making the Big Dance and possibly going to the Sweet 16. But who could've imagined the start to the season that Syracuse would have.
They currently have a 16-2 record, with one loss in five Big East contests. Of course, that one Big East loss just came on the road to Georgetown in their most recent contest, leaving a bitter taste in fans' mouths. But think back to the beginning of the season. You would've taken 16-2 (4-1) in a heartbeat, especially if it included wins over Florida, Kansas (virtual roadie) and Memphis (road game). Granted, the landscape of college basketball has changed greatly since October, but the fact of the matter is SU played a sloppy game on Wednesday and still kept it somewhat close against the Hoyas.
While the G-Town game was a very disappointing letdown, let's put it into perspective. Sure, SU was ranked eighth in the country, riding a seven-game winning streak and all that, but one could still argue that the team hadn't been adequately tested. SU went from playing four of the Big East's bottom feeders to playing a top 15 team in one of the nation's toughest road environments (Georgetown had a thirty game home winning streak snapped by Pittsburgh earlier this month). And in the Georgetown game, nearly everything went right for Georgetown, while Syracuse struggled to do even the easiest things: slowing the game down, finishing slam dunks, making good passes, extending the defense on three point shooters.
But, the thing of it is, that's just one game. If you honestly expected SU to run the gauntlet in the Big East without losing a single game or if you expected 100% effort from the team every game, then you're certifiably crazy. The team came out and played flat on Wednesday, but is still right in the thick of the Big East race and will continue to be down the stretch.
So let's take a look at some things that need to happen to keep the Orange on the right track.
-Don't let this one loss snowball. Syracuse will likely be favored in every single remaining home game and with the support of over twenty-five thousand Orange-clad fans at each game, it's entirely possible that SU could finish 8-1 or even 9-0 at home against Big East teams. (Sure, they'll need to toughen up that defense for Kyle McAlarney tomorrow and they can't afford another dud from Arinze Onuaku against some of the conference's better big men, but this team does have a favorable slate of home games).
-Dish the rock. Spread the points. SU has five different players averaging double figures so far (also, three with more than 5.5 boards and three with more than three assists). UConn is the only other team in the Big East that can boast five in double digits (their fifth-highest scorer, A.J. Price, clocks in at an even ten per contest). Meanwhile, Providence has seven players averaging over eight points per contest. After those two schools, the competition is few and far between. The Orange have so many different weapons and various ways they can be employed to win a game on any given night. Whether it's Rautins dropping nine threes, Jonny Flynn dropping twenty plus and ten assists or even a Rick Jackson double-double, this team is relatively deep. Of course, if Rautins' knee isn't okay then we'll have a whole other boatload of issues to delve into, but as it stands now, SU should be fine (especially when they go to work in the NCAA tourney which might seem like a break from the physical Big East style of play).
-Rick Jackson's continued development will be key for this team. Sure, he dropped some baskets on the Hoyas, but they didn't look pretty (I'm sure at least a few of you were cringing after he first took a couple of those shots which would then fortuitously roll around the rim before falling). On the dark side, though, he shot 1 for 8 from the free throw line.
Like it was said at the beginning of the season, Jackson can provide a nice complement to A.O. in the low post. While Rick the Stick's game might not look so pretty now, he's able to eat up valuable minutes and use his long wingspan to help the Orange on the glass.
-Follow that old cliché of "one game at a time." Yes, eight of SU's next nine opponents are ranked (and the one that isn't is Providence, a team that will prove to be very tricky in the Dunkin' Donuts Arena). But if SU can hold serve at the Dome and pick up road wins against the likes of St. John's and Providence, they should be alright. With their talent, they will find a way to pull out a road game against Villanova or Marquette. They're already 2-1 in Big East road games. If they can get three more, they would finish with a winning record on the road and likely would finish with no less than twelve wins in conference play. As Wednesday showed, however, this team cannot underestimate the difference between home and road games.
-Stay away from the injury bug. We've heard of minor ailments to Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf earlier this year. But Paul's hand and Andy's knee (now a huge mental block for him, as well as physical) could be nagging injuries. Jim Boeheim will need production from both of these guys, especially if the Orange wants to secure a top four seed in the Big East tournament.
-On that note, I might be in the minority when I say this, but I would rather not see SU win the conference tourney. It's a grueling and tiring competition that has seemed to wear down players. The conference champ has seemed to underachieve in the NCAA tournament for a while and the Orange has a chance to make a deep run this season. If SU can get a top four seed and win a quarterfinal matchup, that'll work for me.
-Work on free throw shooting incessantly and drill into A.O.'s head just how big a weapon he can be. Onuaku has been among the nation's leaders in field goal percentage all season and our beloved Dick Vitale drooled all over him while commentating the Memphis game. Someone's gotta get into the gentle big man's head and get him psyched for these matchups with post players. He'll get Hasheem Thabeet, Greg Monroe again and DeJuan Blair down the stretch. It's important that Onuaku doesn't disappear in these matchups, because Wednesday showed us what a bad performance from the big fella means for the rest of the team.
-Pick up the intensity on defense. Whether in zone or man, the players need to assume more defensive responsibility. That means when the Waffle (Kristof) gets in the game and commits a foul, he needs to make sure it's a hard foul so the shot doesn't go in. That means Rick Jackson can't just look like a stiff cardboard cutout. Rick's been able to use his wingspan effectively so far to disrupt passing but the rest of his D is lacking. This team needs to get urgent in three categories: defensively, on the boards and when trying to close teams out. Those have been and will continue to be the team's biggest problems.
-Develop the bench when you can. There's going to come a time when we need a Kris Joseph jumper, a Kristof Ongenaet hustle play or a Mookie three. If there's one thing you can be sure of in the Big East, it's that every game will be a war and you won't win a game without taking some lumps and bruises. The ‘Cuse has been working with six or seven men in the rotation for a while now and that's something that needs to change.
-A few individual observations about players. Maybe it's the NBA hype getting to Jonny, but Flynn has certainly looked a bit shaky at times. He has tried to hurry the offense up too much at times. The team is better served when he plays as a distributing point guard and not as a ‘playground baller.' As for Andy Rautins, just keep doing what you're doing, Andy. Stay healthy, hit those threes and keep wowing us with those passing skills. You see the court well, but you could drive the ball a bit more perhaps. Eric Devendorf just needs to stay out of trouble, both on and off the court (easier said than done), and develop consistency. Eric's the second-leading scorer on the team, but there's some nights you just wouldn't know it. He can disappear at times. However, he is the one clutch free throw shooter we have. If Paul Harris can ever fully heal from the injury to his finger and return to being his aggressive, board-crashing self, then that's all we can ask of him. He has developed a bit more of an outside game and when healthy, no one shows more heart than him in the low post. The entire team, and specifically the bench, needs to work on defense in general. It's also going to be crucial for bench players to not get frustrated. Jimmy B. is set in his ways, having coached for numerous decades. He'll keep with his rotation of players and it's going to be hard for Kris and Mookie to be patient. They were top prospects coming out of high school and aren't used to sitting on the bench. But their time will definitely come at some point in time this year…as will the Orange's. This is a special team of players that are brazen, talented and they just might be the ones to give SU fans a March to remember.