Syracuse’s postseason hopes rest on finding more offensive production
ATLANTA — There was a second losing locker room, at least in tone, buried beneath a back staircase and practice gym at McCamish Pavilion on Wednesday night. Near the bottom of the stairs stood Jim Boeheim, the head coach of the Syracuse Orange who had minutes earlier went no-holds-barred in his news conference after his team scraped out a 46-45 win against host Georgia Tech, looking every bit as displeased as he did for the majority of the evening. Inside, the cramped, off-white visitor’s locker room was reserved, as if a fifth straight win wasn’t worth celebrating.
The Syracuse Orange, one of the proudest and most successful college basketball programs in the country, are visibly unhappy with their recent play. They are 11-4 and undefeated in ACC play … and already flirting with the prospect of missing the NCAA Tournament for just the eighth time in the past 39 seasons.
An open-ended winning streak is certainly a strange time to bring up a team’s shortcomings, but Boeheim’s team is trending in the wrong direction. On Wednesday, everyone in the program seemed well aware of that trend and the need for a turnaround.
There’s enough evidence on the table to suggest that this is Boeheim’s worst team since the program’s three-year drought from 2006 to 2008 in which it reached the NCAA Tournament just one time — and only then by virtue of Gerry McNamara’s one-man wrecking service at the 2006 Big East Tournament. Every Syracuse team since those back-to-back NIT appearances earned a 4-seed or better in the Big Dance, but barring a dramatic change of course, this current group is not heading for that lofty status. At this rate, as Boeheim & Co. fully acknowledged after the Georgia Tech win, it’ll be fortunate to make the 68-team field at all.
"We just can’t play like this and be successful. You’re not gonna be able to hold people — if we have to hold somebody to 45 points to win the game, we’re not gonna win many games," Boeheim said. "Somehow we’ve gone on the road and we’ve got two wins, and we’re happy about that, but you have to look realistically at what your outlook is when you play like this. We’ve just gotta play better."
Syracuse is a middle-of-the-pack ACC team right now, according to practically every metric available. It ranks 41st in Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free database, 52nd in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) and 69th in RPI. Four losses is far from an end-of-the-road type of scenario for any program in early January, but it’s the most non-conference regular-season losses the Orange have suffered since the 1981-82 NIT-bound season and there’s just one quality win on the résumé: a three-point win over a good Iowa team on a neutral court.
There’s not a disastrous loss on their record — although losing to Cal and Michigan doesn’t look like a ringing endorsement at this point — but this has all the makings of an eventual bubble candidate, especially with the business end of a backloaded conference slate to come.
(For what it’s worth, Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology projection slots Syracuse as one of the final four teams in the 68-team field, pitting them as an 11-seed in the play-in round.)
It’s not a position this program is used to being in. As Boeheim’s career record attests to, Syracuse being firmly entrenched in the postseason picture is a college basketball staple. Think about the number above: Boeheim has been pacing the sidelines since the late ’70s, back when Syracuse played as an independent program and before the Big East was even born, before the Big Dance even got "big", and his teams have missed the nation’s premier tourney only seven times, once due to a postseason ban during the 1992-93 season for NCAA violations.
Still, after beating two mediocre-to-outright-rebuilding ACC teams by a combined three points, Syracuse must improve before the Dukes, Virginias and Louisvilles coming knocking.
"It’s definitely a better feeling leaving the game when you win a close game, but like Coach (Boeheim) said to us, you can’t keep getting lucky. You’ve gotta find other ways earlier to win and make plays and make shots. Overall, you don’t want to put yourself in these situations," guard Trevor Cooney said. "He’s been coaching for a really long time. He knows that if you keep doing this, you’re not going to win."
It’s a group that lacks depth, experience and offensive firepower. It’s a group that, for now, simply is getting by on pure athleticism and Boeheim’s defensive principles, the feared 2-3 zone that continues to effectively stall opponents: Syracuse ranks 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency as opposing offenses average 20.6 seconds per possessions.
The offense is a glaring weakness, though, as evidenced by the longtime coach’s calculated description of its most recent performance: "Without a doubt the worst offensive game I’ve ever seen." Potential hyperbole aside, there’s reason for concern. It is a unit that ranks 119th nationally in efficiency after the debacle in Atlanta, which would slot it as the second-worst Syracuse offense in the efficiency era — right ahead of the 2002 group that missed the tourney. The Orange are a poor-shooting group, particularly from 3-point range, that turns the ball over too often and doesn’t get to the free-throw line nearly enough (and when they do, they knock down just 65.8 percent of their attempts).
Outside of senior big man Rakeem Christmas — the 6-foot-9 forward has taken remarkable strides while going from role player to Boeheim’s lone go-to option at the moment, averaging 17.3 points and 8.8 rebounds while posting a 64.5 true shooting percentage — Syracuse is getting precious little help on offense, particularly as defenses continue to face-guard Cooney, the team’s best shooter, and try to force the Orange to their third, fourth or even fifth option. That’s where things get dicey, because Syracuse doesn’t have that many viable options 15 games into the season.
The need-to-improve conversation largely centers on true freshmen Chris McCullough and Kaleb Joseph. Fair or unfair, Syracuse’s improvement will be dictated, for the most part, by the development of the two former top-75 recruits, both of whom have struggled mightily at times in their first year at the collegiate level.
McCullough, the highly regarded 6-foot-10 NBA prospect — at least according to draft boards, not Boeheim — has been the better of the two, getting off to an impressive start before tapering off offensively, scoring in single digits each of the past seven games and posting a below-average 93.1 offensive rating this season. His coach has been tough on him, but he’s long, athletic and probably the Orange’s best complement to Christmas, at least when he’s playing well. That hasn’t been the case lately — he scored three points on 1-of-7 shooting against the Yellow Jackets, once again drawing public criticism.
His freshman running mate Joseph, dubbed "The Bookworm Assassin" while tearing up high school competition, has been much less effective. Trying to the fill the shoes of recent Syracuse guards Dion Waiters, Michael Carter-Williams and, most recently, departed freshman star Tyler Ennis, Joseph is still in an adjustment period. Owning a 31.4 turnover rate and the third-lowest offensive rating among qualified ACC players (85.9), Joseph said he is gaining confidence with every game, but his numbers have yet to live up to the school’s strong backcourt tradition.
"We’ve gotta get somebody else going. It’s painful to watch our forwards play on offense. And our point guard and backup point guard, right now they’ve got to (improve). Kaleb went to Villanova, probably the best team we’ve played, and played great (in a) tough game, pressure game, (against a) defensive team. He hasn’t been able to get going since then," Boeheim said. "Chris started out great, he played great, and now we can’t get him to (even) play bad. We’d like to get him to play bad. That would be a step up from where we are.
"I know we can play better offensively, but somehow we’ve gotta get there. Rak (Christmas) is playing about as good as you can ask him to play. Trevor’s playing good … but we’ve got to get somebody else to pick it up."
This wouldn’t be too much of an issue in past seasons, but the Orange have lost NBA-bound talent recently (Ennis, Carter-Williams, Jerami Grant) and are essentially going six- or seven-deep in competitive games. The freshmen, struggles and all, have been forced into major roles. That’s been problematic thus far, but there’s room to grow.
There’s also room for some optimism.
Despite Syracuse’s uncharacteristically slow start in non-conference play, the fact remains that Boeheim’s zone will keep Syracuse competitive in almost every game. The Orange still took Villanova, the eighth-ranked team nationally, to overtime and lost to Michigan in a one-possession game. A glass-half-full perspective? Syracuse is two or three possessions away from being 13-2 with a signature win and a spot in the national polls. Thanks almost entirely to its defense, Syracuse potentially can hang around with just about anybody this season, particularly poor outside shooting teams on its schedule like North Carolina and Louisville.
"Earlier in the season we lost a close game at Michigan. We lost it. We had a close game at Villanova. Lost it. So, I mean, here we are in two close games and we win them," Cooney said. "I think we’re better because of these games earlier on, which is good."
They’ll need to be.
The Orange are in the middle of a crucial six-game stretch that serves as a potential ACC grace period. With a 2-0 conference record already in place, the remaining four games — Florida State, Wake Forest, Clemson and Boston College — comes against teams currently ranked outside the KenPom top-100, three of them held in the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome. It’s the easiest stretch Syracuse has left on its schedule. It’s also an opportunity for Boeheim’s team to find itself, to find another gear, to find points. The search continues.