Hidden among the many, surprising, surprisingly many bright spots in last night’s victory over the South Bend University Turtlenecks was another example of Jim Boeheim’s brilliance. I shouldn’t still be amazed, but nevertheless I am, at how well JB understands the college game in general, and his team in particular.

The brilliant move was to leave Christmas in the game after his fourth foul. Not just for a few more minutes, but for as long as he was able to stay on the floor.

To refresh your memory: there were about 14 minutes left, and Syracuse led by 4, when Rak picked up foul #4. In this situation, probably 98% of coaches would take out their star player right away, and leave him on the bench until there were only a few minutes left — or until they lost the lead and felt the game slipping away. They would hope that their replacement would be able to ‘hold down the fort’ long enough that the game would still be in reach at the end. Boeheim did the opposite. He kept Rak in, to make sure the game stayed close for as long as possible. When he finally was disqualified, 8 1/2 minutes of game time later, SU had in fact increased their lead to 8 points. The margin shrunk but the lead never disappeared over the final 5:18, and SU came away with the win.

There are a number of reasons why this strategy made sense. But it took Boeheim just an instant of sizing up the situation to know immediately that it was the right move.

First, Rak has had his share of foul trouble and has become skilled at playing conservatively enough to not foul. You could see it several times on defense when he backed away from drivers (while still maintaining enough presence to alter some shots). There were a couple of semi-loose rebounds that he let go into ND hands, rather than sticking his nose in and fighting for them. He made extra sure to set very non-moving screens.

But more than that, JB knows his team. He knows that without Rak on the floor, the offense is going to stall. But — and here’s the key — that’s fine! Late in the game, with a lead on the road, you are already going to take the air out of the ball like you were Tom Brady. That’s something you can do with Chino on the court. In other words, if you have to play for 5 minutes without Rak, it makes more sense to play those 5 minutes with a lead at the end of the game, when ND is going to start getting desperate, than to do it in the middle of the 2nd half, and let the opponent gain confidence for the stretch run. This is Boeheim knowing his team AND knowing the other guys and, more generally, college basketball players. He knows how their psyches work, how momentum shifts are more pronounced in college than in the NBA (because shooters in college are so much less reliable) and he correctly assessed that their best chance to win was to get as much time out of Christmas as possible and then hope to hold on the rest of the way.

Now, this strategy of course was not guaranteed to work. Rak might have fouled out earlier, or ND might have made a couple more shots (or SU a couple fewer) in those last few minutes with Christmas watching helplessly from the sidelines. But it’s clear that the decision to just let Rak play as long as he could manage gave SU the best chance to win.

And, of course, they did. ROAD WIN!!

The streak survives

Syracuse basketball has once again guaranteed a winning season. That’s 44(!!) seasons in a row without a loss.

Once again I will shout it into the internet where nobody will hear it:


Here is your annual proof: a screen shot taken from the NCAA record book, published before this season. (The “2013″ refers to the 2013-14 season.)


This year it took longer than expected, but also not as long. Normally the winning season is assured after the team’s 17th win, but with the recently announced postseason ban there will be only the 31 regular-season games, so 16 is enough. On the other hand, never in recent memory have we had to wait until mid-February for that clinching win. Still, with the team likely to be the underdog in almost all of their remaining games, I’m (abnormally? unreasonably?) happy that they got it done tonight when they had their best chance.

I don’t know what it will take for the SU Sports Information Department to start including this sports information in their press kits. Is there someone I can tweet at? Should I start a hashtag movement? How close do they have to get to UCLA’s record — that’s John Wooden UCLA — before someone besides me notices?


Just get through it

I don’t think I have ever seen a Syracuse basketball season that was anything like this. Dancing on the edge of disaster for game after game. Trying to cobble together a successful season with essentially three competent players. It’s a testament to the post dominance of Rakeem Christmas that the team has even managed to get into the precarious position in which they find themselves. But not only do they have basically no margin for error, they have to even play above their standard game in order to pull out a win against even middling competition.

The closest recent parallel to this team would be the 2005-2006 squad. That team was on the wrong side of the bubble line going into the Big East Tournament. Their first-round opponent in that tourney was Cincinnati in what everyone essentially said was a play-in game. That squad was 1.5 seconds from the NIT before the Gerry McNamagic (TM) began. We all know the story. But think about it. Without Rakeem Christmas, this year’s team wouldn’t have won ten bleeping games. These guys were not ready. They needed him.

The other starters on the 2006 squad were Eric Devendorf (freshman year) and the junior triumvirate of Watkins, Roberts, and Nichols, who were all entering their first years as full-time starters (having played behind Warrick, Forth, and Pace). The team lost 10 regular season games prior to their BET run. But even that team had some amount of depth. Four bench guys played in 29 or more games, and a fifth (skinny freshman Andy Rautins) got into 20. This year, thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, there is no bench. There is Ron Patterson who comes in for Kaleb Joseph when Joseph is having a bad game. That’s it. Everyone else plays 40 minutes if they can. And good god help us if they can’t.

At this stage I don’t expect this squad will make the NCAAs. I don’t think anyone does, outside of the locker room perhaps. It is true that they have a lot of games against really good teams coming up and if they can come through and win a couple, they can end up with a tournament-worthy resume. But so far when they’ve had those opportunities, they’ve not been able to come through. The UNC game, sure, but primarily the loss to Villanova, and the loss to Miami. These were both games that SU gave away in one fashion or another. I’m not sure which hurts more. Nova on the road would have been a solid resume builder ’statement’ win. But losing to another bubble team — a conference foe no less — at home is the kind of thing that makes the difference in the selection room. It’s clear that SU will have to grab a couple of big wins down the road, whether in the rest of the regular season or the ACC tournament. I just hope they win enough games to at least qualify for the NIT.

Thanks to OrangeHoops for refreshing my memory about the 2006 squad.

Welcome back, welcome back

Basketball season has returned!

And so has the blog. We are gonna give this another try. Changes in life circumstance have left me hopeful that I can carve out some time every so often to keep the internet dream alive. At the very least we’re remaining active on Twitter during games, so drop a follow @CuseCountry when you have a minute.

I didn’t see any of the preseason contests but I was able to watch both of SU’s first two ‘real’ games. Some might call ‘em cupcakes, but you can’t blame Boeheim for this part of the schedule. Yell at whoever books the 2K Classic. (In fact, the nonconference slate looks rather challenging this year. Probably not going 25-0 again.) Having seen the guys in 80 minutes of live action now, a few things jump out.

1. We are young

Heartache to heartache, we stand!


Honestly, though. You’ve got Rakeem Christmas, suddenly looking like (and being looked upon as) a stabilizing veteran force. I’m pretty sure it was just last year when he spent long stretches looking lost and getting benched in favor of a guy with cheese wheels for hands. Now all at once he’s the rock that the whole team leans on. OK, fine, I’ll give that to you. But who’s next? Cooney and Gbinije. Each guy has been in the program a while, sure, but each has only one year of significant contributions. After them, the next most experienced player is sophomore Tyler Roberson.

Now, youth is not necessarily a bad thing. Syracuse has a proud history of being well-served by freshman talent. But as solid as Joseph and McCullough have looked so far, they are not Carmelo Anthony and Jonny Flynn. Not that I am expecting them to be, mind you. That’s more than one can ask from any player, let alone from freshmen. I’m just saying that they do not look ready to be leaned on the way those guys were. Hence, we are young.

2. We aren’t strong

No one can tell me I’m wrong. Kennesaw State was way overmatched but Hampton brought a few brutes along with them. They had some interior presence and strength to make up for their lack of height. I tweeted during the Kennesaw game that Rakeem looked like ‘a man among boys’ and it’s true. He’s had 4 years in the weight program and has bulked up to a serious playing weight. But after him the front line is… reedy. (Unless Dajuan Coleman comes back.) Roberson is probably the next biggest dude out there and he’s got a ways to go. For a long stretch against Hampton SU went with Gbinije and Johnson at the wings; those guys are “long and athletic” but not exactly bulky. Rak has been a rebounding machine so far but traditionally in the SU zone the forwards are the main rebounders. We got spoiled last year with Grant and Fair gobbling up everything in sight; I doubt we can rely on that this year. We’ll match up OK with a lot of teams but will probably have trouble with the ‘bruiser’ squads, the likes of Marquette… I mean can you imagine this team playing Marquette’s usual army of 6′8″-275lb. linebackers? Rak would foul out in 5 minutes and we’d get like 12 rebounds total.

3. We play defense

Lest it seem like all I am going to do is pick out flaws, let me point out some of the positives of what they’ve shown so far. The defense, which has really been the strong point of this team for the past several years, once again looks devastatingly effective. Hampton made a few good zone-busting plays but for each one of those there were four or five possessions where they could not get a good shot. The combined wingspan of the five guys is ridiculous. What they may lack in brute strength they will make up for in pure reach. Neither of the first two opponents has broken 50 points. Last year they held nearly every opponent not named Duke under 70; one piece of that, though, was the deliberate pace of the Orange offense reducing the number of possessions. Even with that slow pace, cupcake teams were still breaking 50 and sometimes 60 most of last year. This team plays faster and yet its opponents shoot worse. It’s not the most effective direct comparison, I know, but I am excited at the potential for another Shut It Down season.

4. We have weapons

Everyone is talking about the emergence of Christmas as an offensive factor (I won’t yet say “force”; give it a few more games) but when you look at the rotation, every single guy getting meaningful minutes looks like he has the potential for busting out a 20-point game. Nobody is probably going to do it all that consistently. And there will be games where it doesn’t happen for anyone. And we will probably lose those games. But this offense is dripping with possibility. We’ve seen Cooney go unconscious before, so there’s that. But honestly I think every one of the rotation players could have a game this year where he just gets into a groove and dominates. We saw BJ Johnson do it in game 1 already. Patterson for sure has that potential — he’s got some “Microwave” Vinnie Johnson in him, and we are all waiting for the game where he just tosses in threes like pennies into a fountain. Gbinije will find a matchup that he can exploit somewhere down the line.

But the one guy who might explode more than any other is Kaleb Joseph. Right now he is focusing on running the team and is really not looking to shoot. He’s only taken 8 shots through two games; Patterson takes 8 shots getting out of bed in the morning. But he is so quick, and “sneaky strong”, that as he gets more comfortable being the lead guard and orchestrating the game, he is going to start putting up much bigger numbers. You heard it here first. He’s going to become more of a scorer as the year goes on, and the offense will be much more dynamic. This is particularly because he’s probably the best on the team at creating a shot for himself. (Maybe Christmas, but post players are really a different breed in this regard.) Gbinije too, but Joseph probably more so. When defenses get tougher, and guys like BJ Johnson and Trevor Cooney are not able to shake free for open jumpers, it will be up to Kaleb to put some points on the board.

5. Boeheim gonna Boeheim

You may not like him as a person, but damn if he doesn’t just get it done Every. Single. Year. Take whatever coach you want, and give me James Arthur and five “wing forwards” and a few months for him to teach them the zone, and I’ll take my chances.

Dome is a battlefield.

Handling their business

Syracuse’s win over North Carolina yesterday was a thing of beauty — as long as you don’t care about shooting percentages. Which I don’t. Sure, it’s nice when you hit shots and it fires up the crowd, but in my dotage I’ve become much more of a fan of SU’s defense. And boy were they playing defense yesterday. The shot blocking was ridiculous. The hustle was turned up to 11. Scrapping, clawing, tipping passes, smothering opposing players. Everything worked just as it’s supposed to, and the result was a historically bad day for the Tarheels.

It helped, I guess, that UNC does not have many legitimate outside threats. After enduring periods of unreasonable long-range bombing from both Miami and Virginia Tech, it was refreshing to face an opponent who didn’t make a bunch of 30-footers. But SU (read: Cooney) was almost as bad from outside in this game, but they had so many more possessions thanks to rebounding, steals, and hustle. Whatever they are putting into Jerami Grant’s Gatorade before the games now, don’t stop. That kid has turned into the Tasmanian Devil out there, whirling around like a madman and consuming every loose ball that comes his way.

As Tyler Ennis goes up for a shot, Jerami Grant is already crashing the offensive glass.
As Tyler Ennis goes up for a shot, Jerami Grant is already crashing the offensive glass.

It’s funny, but I am only now starting to believe that this team has a chance to go deep into the tournament. And it’s not because they have “so many weapons”, because we’ve seen some bad shooting performances from the Orange this year. It’s because of the defense, which they rode to the Final Four last year and which, despite an entirely new starting backcourt, is still really, really good. Only two of SU’s sixteen opponents have reached 70 points this year: Fordham and Cal. Meanwhile, eight of the sixteen have been held to 54 points or less, including all three ACC opponents to date, and Indiana. That’s just dominant defense. And bodes well for the future. I am quick to assume the worst and always hesitate to believe, but it’s getting harder and harder not to.

Reese’s Gold (Pro Update January 2014)

Happy new year to all you out there in Orangeland. The fruits of the Syracuse basketball program are spread far and wide across the globe, and from time to time we extend our cybertendrils and draw them in from the far corners all to one place. In other words: the whole world is Cuse Country.

Boeheim likes to complain about reporters Greensboro the RPI the NCAA’s rating system that doles out program penalties based on athletes’ student-athletes’ academic progress, or lack thereof. His contention is that if a basketball player gives up school to pursue a professional playing career, then his program has prepared that person for a career and a life just as well, if not better, than a college degree would, and isn’t that the whole point? And he should know, because there are currently TWENTY-ONE former Orangemen getting paid to play someplace. (It would be twenty-two, except that Jonny Flynn’s bad hip acted up again so he got cut from his Chinese team before the season even started. Once again: screw you Kurt Rambis!) And we’ve got info on all of them, including photographs, interviews, a surprising number of highlight videos, and all-around general amazement.

Read More »

Blacksburg? More like Orangesburg! Amiright?

Is this thing on?

A college town just off I-81… sounds familiar…

I wrote the following to conclude my recap of the win over Miami:

…Miami’s shrewd strategy of continually making 28-foot three-pointers ultimately proved untenable. They are approximately the eighth team to try that strategy against Syracuse this year, and so far all have failed. Evidently it’s tough to keep up that pace for an entire game….

You can now add Virginia Tech to the list of bomb-tossers. Seriously. How many games are we going to have to watch where the opposing team makes multiple 30-foot shots in the first five minutes? It just delays the inevitable, and makes the other guys think they might have a chance, when they really… actually… don’t. The funny part is, Tech was somewhat successful when they were able to get the ball inside. Their big men had decent hands and made a few nice interior passes. But the operative phrase there is “a few”. Even with the SU zone defense extended way out on the perimeter to challenge the shooters, the Hokies just couldn’t reliably get the ball in close to the basket. They were regularly too hesitant, too unsure of their next move — and if you wait for that half-second, the defense will be reset and you’re stuck launching deep threes with the shot clock running down. (PS. My favorite play of the night was when VT was inbounding the ball with three seconds on the shot clock and threw it out to midcourt, resulting in a 50-foot heave. You don’t have a play you can at least try to run in that situation?)

Props in this space to the usual suspects, but also to Tyler Roberson, who played nice minutes in the first half while the game was still close. He contributed on offense and on the boards, but perhaps most importantly he did a solid job on defense. Nothing will get a freshman (or anyone for that matter) yanked by Boeheim faster than a lapse in defensive rotation. I watched Roberson in particular on D to see how he was coming along, and he did great. Closed out on the high wing on ball reversal, dropped into the paint when the center stepped up, even helped trap a guy in the low corner. Not to get too ahead of ourselves, but his season so far reminds me of Jerami Grant’s season last year. Not a lot of minutes in the important early games, because he is learning the college game and the SU system in particular, but the coach starts to trust him a little more as he improves. For Grant, he was thrust into a bigger role by necessity when James Southerland got suspended, and he shone at times. Let’s hope that Roberson doesn’t get thrust into any such situation, but that he keeps developing his game along a similar arc. There are going to be plenty of frontcourt minutes available next year, and though he may not start as a sophomore, Roberson is establishing himself as the early favorite to slide into that sixth-man forward role that Grant is playing this year. (See also: James Southerland, CJ Fair, Kris Joseph, et al.)

Welcome to Big Ten basketball

In their first league game in their new conference, the Syracuse Orange persevered through a hideous slog of a game to emerge victorious. Fans knew there would be an adjustment period as the usually high-flying Orange got dragged into the morass that is Big Ten basketball, but I don’t know if any of us was quite prepared for Saturday’s unsightly mess. The traditional features of midwestern “basketball” were all on full display: an opponent holding the ball for 30 seconds on nearly every possession; rims that suddenly seem to be made of granite; some sort of magical fairy dust that allows the opposing defenders to continuously grab and poke yet almost never get called for fouls. Legends have long been told of these sorts of games, though I never quite believed the rumors of final scores in the 40s until today. It was as if the living ghost of Bo Ryan suddenly grabbed a clipboard on the opposing sideline.

The balls they use in this league also make it quite difficult to shoot.

It makes me wish that Syracuse, when all the conference realignment happened a couple years back, decided to join the ACC, where (for all their intrinsic godlessness) they do decent and proper things, like scoring points. Instead we are stuck in the fast-break-forsaken swamp that is the Big Ten. At least, that’s what appears to have happened. I can’t come up with any other explanation for what I just witnessed.

Being in a new conference stinks.

The good news is that they won the game, displaying grit, fortitude, heart, and any number of other slog-worthy adjectives. Several guys each made a shot or two, which was enough to pull away at the end, as Miami’s shrewd strategy of continually making 28-foot three-pointers ultimately proved untenable. They are approximately the eighth team to try that strategy against Syracuse this year, and so far all have failed. Evidently it’s tough to keep up that pace for an entire game. One day it may work for someone, though. I just hope it’s not in the first round of the NCAAs.


Watching the arc of yesterday’s handling of Villanova — demoralizing start, followed by exhilarating run to take the lead, and then the steady maintenance and enhancement of that lead until you look at the final score and think “they must have had it the whole way” — a thought occurred to me. Well, many thoughts occurred, but one in particular stood out because it’s not something I’ve recently associated with Syracuse basketball:

This team has brains.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like previous Syracuse squads have been exceptionally moronic (shut up Georgetown fans!) but the current group, so far, seems that much more composed in its decision-making. They seem to make fewer bad passes and take fewer bad shots than their immediate predecessors.

The lion’s share of this change falls on the shoulders of Tyler “Canada Smooth” Ennis. The praise for Ennis’ point guard play has been both plentiful and richly deserved. He has one of the top assist-to-turnover ratios in the country (4.4:1, currently around 25th nationally) and has shown the poise of a senior this year. Contrast that with Michael Carter-Williams last year, who managed a 2.1:1 ratio. As dynamic a scorer as MCW was, he did have a penchant for bad decisions: driving the lane and then getting caught with no good shot and no good passing option, or trying to push the ball in a fast break and losing it out of bounds. He seemed to inherit that trait from Scoop Jardine, who could be a brilliant passer but was also prone to visits from the bonehead fairy. Throw Dion Waiters in there, who would sometimes get it in his head that he was the only one capable of scoring (which, to be fair, was sometimes true) and would force up threes or fall-away jumpers. A little further back in time we have “Unforced Eric” Devendorf, king of the ill-advised dribble drive.

The problem was not limited to the guards, either. Fab Melo shooting jump shots. Paul Harris throwing inbounds passes to Pitt players. You can even go back to the post-championship quartet of Demetris Nichols, Darryl Watkins, Louis McCroskey, and Terrence Roberts. All of them were highly skilled ballplayers; all of them routinely earned early hooks from Boeheim for making some dumb play or other, even into their senior seasons. You know who doesn’t do that? CJ Fair. He never has.

You know who else? Jerami Grant. Trevor Cooney. Baye Keita. Michael Gbinije. Even Rakeem Christmas has smartened up this year. He’s not taking jump shots or leaving opposing players wide open on the wing. He has accepted, and is playing within, his role on the team. The team has taken on the personality of Fair and Ennis — don’t go crazy, don’t get too up or too down, just run your stuff like you practiced and more often than not you’ll come out on top.

At the moment, Syracuse is 26th in the nation in Turnovers per Offensive Play, at a 13% rate. Last year their rate was 15.6%. Granted, you expect this to rise a bit as they play better defenses over the course of the year, but it’s still an impressive number. There isn’t a “bad shot percentage” but if there were, I’d expect it to be supremely low this year. I’ve seen nearly every minute of every game and I can barely recall muttering “THAT was a dumb shot” the way we all used to in the past. Boeheim has designed an offense to play to these guys’ strengths, and the team is sticking to the game plan in a way that past teams have not always been able, or willing, to do. (A notable exception would be the Wes Johnson team that had one of the most efficient offenses in school history.) That patience, persistence, and general smart was one of the reasons they were able to weather the awful start to yesterday’s game and just methodically take it over.

We’ll see if this trend, and the team’s composure, holds as the competition continues to stiffen. But for now, the signs are quite encouraging, and have got me starting to think big. (Just a little.)

If you want to order one of the “Syracuse basketball lawn zombies” pictured above, just search “syracuse basketball zombie”. I had no idea such things existed before I started writing this post and looking for an appropriate image.

We’re not dead

I feel happy…!

Astute readers of this space will notice that our last post was from just before Syracuse’s Final Four loss. The morning after the game, I could not bring myself to write on it, and in fact I went into self-imposed basketball avoidance mode. I did not watch the championship game, or even attempt to find out what happened. Eventually I found out that Louisville won… those jerks. The only good thing about it was that they beat Michigan, also jerks. Jerks as far as the eye could see. There was no possible way for me to derive any pleasure from that game, so I skipped it. And in the days afterwards, I found myself unwilling to really confront what had happened.

Of course it’s ancient history now; hell, the new team has already played a bunch of (Canadian) games. So I am going to assert Blogger’s Prerogative and not go back to that game, except to say that I still feel terrible for Brandon Triche. To have his final play in a Syracuse uniform be that horrendous charge call when he should have had the chance to tie the game… it still sickens me when I think about it. I hope he doesn’t dwell on it.


Anyway. Basketball will be here soon enough, so I figured I should dust off the old Commodore 64 and re-open this space. The above will be the extent of my picking at the scab of last year. Time for a fresh start. New conference, six new guys in orange (though one is redshirting), same ol’ head coach, and CJ Motherfucking Fair:

This is going to be one of the more interesting seasons in recent memory. It feels like there are more unknowns than in any of the past few seasons, and it’s going to be a fun ride.

In the meantime, we’ve got a football team that has found its quarterback (hopefully just in time), and is about to welcome the #3 team in the land to the northern shores. The field hockey team is back in the top ten, along with 5 other ACC schools. And the future looks bright… BRIGHT ORANGE.

So, Cuse Country lives! For a while, anyway. Carving out time for this pursuit is always a challenge but I’m going to try to be up to the task. At the very least, I’ve got a ton of former SU players pursuing careers overseas to keep tabs on. Can’t let that responsibility slide.