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Syracuse walked a thin line between wins, losses

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Call it the Tale of Two Seasons.

A 25-0 start, the best in school history, had Syracuse fans anticipating at the very least an Atlantic Coast Conference title in its first year, and an extended run in the NCAA Tournament, possibly even a repeat trip to the Final Four.

But euphoria turned to anxiety quickly for Jim Boeheim’s squad. SU could not duplicate the clutch shooting, defensive intensity and the ability to win tight games in the closing stretch of the campaign.

Thus, the Orange managed just three wins in its last nine games, including unexpected losses to North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament and a season-ending defeat against Dayton in the NCAA Tournament last Saturday in Buffalo.

Even more frustrating is the fact that both losses came by just three points to lower seeded teams.

So which was the real Orange team? The one that could do almost nothing wrong for the first three and a half months of the season? Or the one that lost its offensive rhythm and could not come up with key defensive stops when it mattered most?

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Syracuse was not as good as its 25-0 record indicated. The team’s flaws, especially on offense, were hidden by winning close games that could have gone either way. And when the Orange stopped executing at key times, tight wins turned to tight losses, and the bubble was burst.

The line between winning and losing for this Orange edition was very thin. Five of the last six losses were by a combined 20 points. Only the 19-point loss to Virginia got away from SU.

On the other hand, nine of SU’s wins came by six points or less. And most of the double-digit victories were tight games until the last few minutes.

It’s easy to look at SU’s inability to make outside shots as the main reason for its offensive struggles at the end of the season. And the stats don’t lie.

In the six losses, the Orange was 18-for-87 from 3-point range, a paltry 21 percent. Leading shooter Trevor Cooney was even worse, hitting just six of his 38 threes in losses for an abysmal 16 percent.

And without another knock-down shooter — the rest of the team shot only 25 percent on 3-pointers — it became harder and harder to expose defenses.

As fine a seasons as senior C. J. Fair and freshman Tyler Ennis had, neither was a big-time threat from beyond the arc. Ennis shot at just 31 percent and Fair hit only 27 percent of his threes.

The bottom line is when teams took Cooney out of the game, SU’s offense struggled. When he was a factor, everybody else was more productive.

While the defense was pretty consistent, allowing just 59 points per game, the 2-3 zone was not as difficult to attack the last month. And it did not produce as much offense as it did in the first part of the season when SU was turning teams over with regularity.

Fair, Ennis and sophomore Jerami Grant all needed to have big games if SU was going to win. When they didn’t, Boeheim’s club was in trouble.

Grant’s back issues certainly did not help. He basically missed three games at crucial times, including losses at Virginia and at home to Georgia Tech. While he seemed to bounce back in the final four games, his absence took away SU’s offensive rhythm.

And while sophomore DaJuan Coleman, who missed most of the year with a knee injury, was never going to be a big point producer, just the fact that he is the best offensive player of the three centers (Rakeem Christmas, Baye Moussa Keita) would have provided an offensive lift.

So where does SU go from here?

Fair and Keita are the only graduation losses. Fair’s loss will have the most effect because he became a go-to guy on offense, capable of taking and making big shots, and his production will be sorely missed.

The bigger questions moving forward are the status of Ennis and Grant. Both are projected as first-round NBA Draft picks if they choose to leave school. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is April 27.

The loss of Ennis would be most noticeable. If he departs, SU would likely be faced with having a second straight true freshman point guard. Incoming recruit Kaleb Joseph, a 6-2 combination guard from Cushing (Ma.) Academy, is the likely successor.

If Grant, SU’s top rebounder and third-leading scorer, leaves, Boeheim will have to rely on sophomore-to-be Tyler Roberson, who saw only limited time this year, 2014 recruit Chris McCullough, a 6-9 forward from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and possibly one of this year’s little-used freshman, B. J. Johnson, to help replace Fair and/or Grant.

If both Ennis and Grant return, SU will almost assuredly be a top five team in the preseason next year.

Cooney has two more years of eligibility, as does Duke transfer Michael Gbinije, who gave Boeheim some critical minutes off the bench the last month at both guard positions.

Look for seldom-used Ron Patterson, probably the team’s second-best long-range shooter, to also crack the backcourt rotation next season.

Christmas and a hopefully healthy Coleman will be patrolling the middle. And 6-9 Chinonso Obokoh of Rochester, who redshirted this year, is also expected to contribute on the front line.

SU is coming off five years of unprecedented success. The Orange has gone 177-42, winning 80 percent of its games, during that span. And it made a Final Four (2012-13), an Elite Eight (2011-12) and two Sweet 16s (2009-10, 2008-09).

There is no reason to believe that cannot continue for years to come.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times.

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