in the market for a closer

Before I write this post — which could be perceived as daring to utter a negative word after a win on the road against a top ten team — let me make it absolutely clear that this team is crazy ill smooth buttah good.  Like, really, really good.  Beyond good; well into the realm of straight nasty.  At this stage of the season, this is the best team we’ve had since the late 80’s.  They are, of course, not yet as good as the 2003 team was by the end — but they are better than Carmelo & Co. were as of January 18th.  This is the best January team we’ve had since Derrick Coleman left town.

Additionally, I will mention that until West Virginia hires a coach that has even the slightest idea how to attack a zone, we can write them off as a serious threat, no matter how highly ranked they might be.  Bob Huggins seems nearly as lost as John Beilein used to be.  Lets just hope Huggy never asks Calhoun for advice.

Now, on to the subject at hand, which will involve a couple of baseball analogies: There are two kinds of major studs you need to win games against high-level competition in D1 basketball. First, you need the superstar who can take over close games down the stretch, and create a victory through willpower alone. This is the Derek Jeter/Manny Ramirez/Albert Pujols type who you can count on to get a hit in the 9th inning when you’re tied or down by one. These guys turn losses into wins, and can carry the team when they have to.  These are the Carmelo Anthony/Jonny Flynn types, and they are the most important guys on the floor.  But there is another kind of stud you need you to secure a certain kind of game in college basketball.  You need a closer.

The closer is the Mariano Rivera/Jonathan Papelbon type who can lock up the game after you already have the lead.  The superstar gets you that lead, then the closer seals the deal.  In basketball the closer’s role is obvious: he’s the guy with the stone cold, ice-water for blood, tear your mother’s heart out, laser beam accuracy at the free throw line.  He’s the guy you give the ball to when you know the other team has no choice but to foul.  And like Mariano, he steps to the line, shoots that two seam cutter at the basket, and calmly puts his foot on the other guy’s throat. All without breaking a sweat.

Thanks to Gerry and Devo, SU has had 7 straight years with a world class closer, thus it’s a little bit disorienting not to have one. But we have to admit that this year we’re still searching for that guy.  Granted: this team is so good that the need for an A-plus closer has been limited so far.  But down the road it would be very helpful if someone could emerge.  I honestly believe that this team is already Final Four material, even without a closer.  But visions of Memphis in 2008 (or Syracuse in 1987) dance through my eyes every time I think of what might happen to SU in the Big Game.

It’s not that everyone on the team sucks at FT shooting. Wes Johnson and Scoop Jardine have very solid numbers, and Kris Joseph has massively improved both his form and his results at the line. And there’s always Andy Rautins, who’s mediocrity at the line continues to baffle me, and thus — four years into his career — I still tend to believe that any minute now he’s going to emerge as a good free throw shooter. However, none of these guys has shown that instinct for clutch FTs down the stretch just yet. None of them has hit enough FTs in big moments or built their confidence to the point that they can seize that closers role (the lack of big moments has given the guys few opportunities, I’ll admit — a nice problem to have).

If I had to place money on someone emerging, I’d put it on Wes Johnson. When in doubt, go with the guy who has superstar talent. He seems comfortable at the line, and he’s got the skills and mentality to get the job done. I would just be a whole lot happier if he would hurry up and become the guy we need. It’s not that his FT% needs to be any higher than the 75% that he’s already shooting. It’s just that he needs to be the guy that kicks that average up to 90%+ when there’s less than a minute on the clock.

Like I said, this team is good enough that FT shooting is not likely to cost them more than one game (maybe two) for the whole rest of the regular season.  But like Memphis showed us against Kansas, you only have to blow that one big game at the end for your entire season to be defined by your inability to hit clutch FTs.


  1. orangefan6
    Posted January 18, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I had this same thought about a month ago. Looks like the flu was really bothering Wes at the WV game. Hopefully he has gotten over it before the start of the ND game.

  2. Jer
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Right before Wes took his last free throw shot against Notre Dame, ESPN flashed up the stat that Johnson was 17-20 or 84% from the stripe with under five minutes to go or in overtime this season (as opposed to 75% overall). He did go on to miss that next shot, but it still seems to prove what we already knew: Wes Johnson is and is going to be that closer we are all seeking.

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