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John Day column: Syracuse basketball paying its dues

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It is as if the basketball gods have extracted payback from the Syracuse Orange.

So many things went right for Jim Boeheim’s club during its school-record 25-0 start. The Orange made big shots at key times. It got key defensive stops when it mattered most. And most importantly, the team believed it would win at crunch time.

But in the last six games, of which the Orange lost five, including Friday’s disappointing 63-60 Atlantic Coast Conference first-round loss to North Carolina State, many of the things that made SU so special have conspired to make the Orange mediocre heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Everybody, including Boeheim, points to SU’s shooting struggles and inability to score consistently. That certainly is THE big issue because it has put tremendous pressure on the defense to make even more stops than usual. And pinpoints the fact that Boeheim has just one real shooter, and shows how teams have successfully taken Trevor Cooney out of the flow of the offense.

When SU’s offense was running smoothly, freshman point guard Tyler Ennis was more of a facilitator than a scorer. He took what the defense gave him and didn’t have to put up a lot of shots to be effective.

But with Cooney struggling, and with an injury that kept Jerami Grant out of the lineup for basically three games, Ennis has looked to the basket more. With mixed results.

Because Ennis taken an average of about 14 shots per game over the last eight as compared to just nine the first 25, it’s taken away from his playmaking and made it tougher for the offense to run smoothly.

And with defenses taking away the lane from Ennis, it has put too much pressure on C. J. Fair to become a creator. Fair’s strengths are running off screens and finding open spaces for good shots. When he has to create his own shots, as he has several times during SU’s slump, he is forcing too many shots out of his comfort area and, consequently, his shooting percentages have dropped dramatically.

But, there are other factors that have made this a tough month for the Orange and its fans. Things that do not auger well for another run to the Final Four like last season.

The defense, the famous 2-3 zone that has become a trademark of Boeheim teams, is just not as good as last year.

Sometimes, certain players fit into the zone mold perfectly — such as long guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche the last couple years who made it so difficult to shoot over them and were brilliant in taking away penetration into the teeth of the zone.

Ennis has had a brilliant rookie season. But he is not a skilled defender on top of the zone, and Cooney is just not as quick or as physical as Triche on the other side. Teams have taken great advantage of their weakness to penetrate and pick apart the zone much easier than the last couple of seasons.

One of the big missing pieces to the zone’s effectiveness the last couple of years was the ability of James Southerland to cover the entire baseline and take away the lane area as a wing defender.

While Fair has developed into one of the ACC’s top scoring threats, his defense and rebounding have not improved. He is often slow to react in SU‘s back-line rotations, allowing way too many easy shots near the rim.

The bottom line is that when the zone is great, like last year, it is almost impossible to beat consistently. When it is just good, like this season, teams have learned how to attack it and score against it more often.

Teams that haven’t seen this kind of zone will have a hard time to adjust in a short time during NCAA preparations. And that always gives SU a little bit of an edge.

While SU continues to hold a significant rebounding edge over its opponents, that is really deceiving. The Orange give up way too many offensive rebounds, don’t grab enough of its own misses and only rarely turn those putbacks into points.

Physical teams continue to exact a toll on the Orange, and it really doesn’t have an answer when teams try to pound the ball inside.

So what is SU’s mindset heading into Selection Sunday? They should be able to build off a 27-5 season and all of the good things they have accomplished.

The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups. Seedings can be misleading because they don’t really tell you much about team’s strengths and weaknesses.

If the Orange faces a team with lots of 3-point shooters, that will be a tough matchup, no matter what the round. But should it face a team that likes to run up and down and play at a faster pace, that is much more to SU’s liking.

Most projections have SU as a No. 3 seed and probably headed to Buffalo for the second and third rounds.

However, the Orange most likely will not stay in the East Region and go to New York City for the regional rounds. They will probably be placed in the Indianapolis (Midwest) or Memphis (South) region.

There’s no doubt Syracuse’s profile has taken a hit over the last month. But it has fulfilled many of the goals the NCAA Tournament committee has set up to reward teams. This is a good road/neutral team (11-3). It’s also 7-2 against the top 50 and 15-3 vs. the top 100 in the RPI.

The Orange is now asking itself what it can make of the rest of the season. And does SU has the right stuff to make another extended run.

Only time will tell.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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