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.

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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.

Braaaaaains.


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.

ROBOT REFS NOW.

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.

2013 Syracuse Orange = 1995 New Jersey Devils

Bear with me here.

The analogy is far from exact, particularly because I’m not especially well-versed in hockey, but it’s been rattling around in my head since partway through the Marquette game when someone commented on how ugly the ballgame was. It was indeed ugly, but that’s because of Syracuse’s beautifully frustrating defense. And that got me thinking, oddly enough, about hockey.

The mid-90s was the period of my life during which I paid the most attention to the NHL, fueled partly by the Rangers’ success (and the media attention it generated, even in Upstate New York) and partly by hours playing NHL ‘94 on my Sega Genesis, just because it was one of the only sports games we had at the time. (Also prominently featured: Joe Montana’s Sports Talk Football.) So I remember pretty well the Devils’ run to the 1995 Stanley Cup.

New Jersey wasn’t the most talented team in that year’s playoffs. They had a young goalie by the name of Brodeur who was coming off a Rookie of the Year season, but otherwise their roster was mostly lacking in star power and excitement. They did not have a particularly explosive offense, finishing 15th in the league in total goals scored for the regular season. What set the Devils apart, and ultimately propelled them all the way to their title, was their defense.

The ‘95 Devils played a unique defensive system called the “neutral zone trap”. It has been around since the 1960s but rarely used in professional play. But the Devils went all-in on this system, mastered it, played it to perfection. Their trap bogged down opponents’ high-flying offenses, and they allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league. Their games were often ugly, defensive grinds, and they received their share of mockery and derision from the purists out there. But they doggedly stuck to their system and rode it all the way to a Cup.

I’m sure you see the parallels now. Syracuse has completely flummoxed its opponents in this year’s NCAA Tournament, forcing more than its share of ugly basketball. Their offense is middling, but their defense has been extraordinary and has carried them to this point. The system they play is unusual but they are fully committed to it and play it better than anyone out there. I’m just hoping that they get the same end result as the Devils did.

WAAAAAAAAAAAAHOOOOOOOOOOOO

See you next week!

MCW

Many Certainly Wondered about Michael Carter-Williams’ ability to Make Cuse Win. But the Mighty Confident Way he Manhandled Crean’s Warriors last night — Making Crazy Winding layups and Multiple Challenging Willowy jump shots, and playing a Masterful, Crafty, Wondrous floor game — showed us all that the Man Can Work it on a Markedly Competitive, Wonderfully elite level.

And now Marquette’s Contemptible, Wearisome squad is all that stands between this Orange collective and a trip to the NCAA Men’s Championship Weekend.


Last night at halftime, after witnessing the Orange zone in its full glory, I said on Twitter “Shades of 2003 vs. Oklahoma”, when SU toppled the top seed in their region to earn a trip to New Orleans. That game was the true “coming-out party” for the 2-3 Zone. The favored Sooners were completely flummoxed by the Syracuse defense, on their way to the paltry end of a 63-47 score, shocking the world — and the legend was born. Last night’s final score was awfully similar, and for the same reason. Indiana had no answer. They were able to run a few good plays against SU but for the most part they were just swallowed up. The Orange frontcourt, in particular, played the zone masterfully. They were as active as I can ever remember seeing them. One of the weaknesses of the defense can be that forwards have to cover such a wide area, from shooters on the wing to the low block. But CJ Fair, James Southerland, and Jerami Grant were seemingly everywhere on that court. Closing out on Indiana’s stable of shooters and still getting back down low to help out and block shots. I mean, seriously. Syracuse blocked nearly 25% of Indiana’s shot attempts. 11 blocks on 47 shots. Unreal.

On the other side of the ball, SU took advantage of their superior backcourt size as MCW and Triche repeatedly got into the lane against the tiny IU guards. Even when Crean wised up and switched Oladipo onto MCW, Triche was still able to get down the lane with relative ease — and MCW masterfully handled the attention from the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. And that often meant there was a tiny dude guarding James Southerland, which meant a big needed to help on him, which meant a defense out of position, leading to Orange hoops. It’s not like SU played a perfect offensive game; far from it. They had a bunch of turnovers of the “fork-in-eye” variety. But you could tell that they were confident that they’d be able to get a pretty good shot on most possessions, and Indiana by contrast had no such faith in their ability to score.

Let me quickly give some shout-outs beyond the tribute to MCW above.

  • James Southerland was a focus of the IU defense all game. He was guarded by Oladipo for much of the first half. That alone tells you how worried the Hoosiers were about him. I want to give him credit for taking only three shots. With the exception of the one three that he did hit, where he used something like ten consecutive screens to get open, he was just very closely guarded all night. So he didn’t force anything, and yet he remained engaged and active on defense and on the glass.
  • Welcome back Jerami Grant! Excellent defense and rebounding from the freshman, and a few key ‘garbage points’ too. The defense did not slip when he was in the game, as it had tended to do recently. Boeheim recognized it too, and gave him some key minutes in the 2nd half.
  • Baye Matrix Keita was once again the defensive whiz that this team needs him to be. Even though his offense regressed (with that missed dunk and the airball layup) he masterminded the Orange zone all night. In a game where the defense was very spread out on the floor, thanks to the presence of a lot of good opposing shooters, he basically controlled the entire area inside the three-point line single-handedly.

OK, bring on Marquette, for what will hopefully be the last time. Seriously. I’m so sick of those guys. Unfortunately SU won’t have the “only one day to try to prepare for the zone” advantage that has been so good to them over the history of their tournament appearances. And we all remember the game in February where SU was outscored from the foul line 29-5. But remember, that game was on the road and SU only lost by 3. It seems much worse in our memories than it actually was, because of the way Marquette physically punished the SU interior. But slide a few calls into the other column, or get one or two more jump shots to fall, and SU walks out of Wisconsin with a win that night. So fear not, Orange faithful. Our dance is not yet done!

What’s going on

Mainly, this:

That’s right, I done got me some Sweet Sixteen tickets. Two, to be precise, as a birthday gift from my incredibly generous family. I have never seen SU play an NCAA tournament game in person. This is going to be amazing, even though my nose will almost certainly be bleeding. You can expect some blurry cell phone photos of the distant action. But the atmosphere promises to be electric. And who knows, maybe I will be able to snag the lower-level stubs of some kind Miami or Marquette fan who has to leave after the first game.

The other thing that’s happening is our “Pick With Your Heart” bracket contest. The rules are:
- You must pick Syracuse to win (so you never have to root against them)
- You get bonus points if you pick against Georgetown

By the way, the last time we ran this contest, we also provided bonus points for picking against Georgetown — and they promptly lost in the first round to Ohio. So, I shall claim some small amount of karma credit for their defeat at the hands of FGCU.

Currently in the lead is “Slutz Superb Bracket” with 435 points, which includes a 50-point bonus for picking against the Hoyas in the first round. In second place is “Otis Hill Bracket” with 430 points, including the +50, and in third is “Bracketology In Moten” with 425. Moten picked the Hoyas to fall to SDSU in the second round, so he gets +30. If he’d gone the “full Esherick” he’d be in first place right now. This is what happens when you don’t hate Georgetown enough. Currently in last place is the “Vic Hanson Bracket of Excellence” who may or may not win the “best bracket name” award. (Also in the running: “Pope Jim Boeheim”.)

Prizes will be announced next week as the Final Four approaches.