Who on this Syracuse team would you want on your side in a knife fight?

When it comes to Syracuse basketball, I’m typically a creature of brazen overconfidence. Every preseason I get that “this could be the year” feeling that only blossoms as we mow through mid-major opponents and preseason tournaments in November and December. Then, over the course of every season, they provide the full dramatic range of hope, sorrow, elation, and disappointment. Within any single season over the last 25 years, I’ve both thought that they can’t possible win another game (usually in late January, early February), and then they finish hot and rekindle my early Final Four visions. By March, they always have me believing again.

This season’s team seems to have followed that same arc, and looks good on paper. 26-7, 12-6 in a deep Big East, ending the season 6-1, getting a 3 seed! We all know what can happen when we’re a 3 seed. I should feel great… But since midseason I’ve had an irritatingly persistent voice whispering in the back of my mind sowing the seeds of an unfamiliar feeling for me at this time of year - nagging doubt.

Since the Connecticut loss last week, my doubt has metastasized. UConn wasn’t a more talented team than us across the whole lineup - but Kemba Walker is an assassin who managed to light a fire under his whole team, and as much as I hate to admit it, UConn just wanted it more. And as I took my disgruntled subway ride home with Kemba’s cold-blooded showing still fresh in my mind, something clicked and I realized what’s missing from our team this year. I’ll phrase my chief concern as a simple question:

Who on this Syracuse team would you want on your side in a knife fight?

Allow me to put the question in the context of our past teams. Underneath the laid back smile, we all knew that Carmelo Anthony was a heartless, driven, cold-blooded killer of basketball teams. He wanted to rip out their still-beating hearts and toss them into the student section. And if his team was going to get beat in a big game, it was going to happen over his dead body. I wanted Carmelo Anthony on my side in a knife fight. Gerry McNamara, almost more so. His runs in the Big East tourney were the basketball equivalent of Jackie Chan movies. He was insanely competitive and wanted it more than anyone else out there. Hakim Warrick wanted to dunk on you and put his nuts in your face simultaneously - and occasionally did just that! Jonny Flynn, Arinze Onuaku, and Andy Rautins (in his senior year) all had this intangible quality. Eric Devendorf - hell, I always suspected that he might be packing an actual weapon somewhere under his uniform that would be sent skittering across the floor on the next hard foul. In our 6 overtime Big East Tourney classic two years ago, we saw an epic knife fight unfold with, by my count, 4 knife fighter-type guys on our team (Devendorf, Flynn, Onuaku, Jackson). Those guys didn’t even have a lead in any of the first 5 overtimes, but they were simply unwilling to lose. But this year when we went into the first overtime against UConn and we all started to believe it could happen again, our guys went down early and folded.

Going back into our history, Etan Thomas, Jason Hart, John Wallace, Z Simms, Adrien Autry, Lawrence Moten, Billy Owens, Sherman, and for god’s sake, Derrick Coleman (the 1:30 mark!) and the entire 1987 team all had it. Take a minute and soak in that link to the 1987 video. Aside from the fact that they’d all be suspended for life and the Carrier Dome court packed in mothballs if that went down in 2011, can you even for a second imagine the 2011 team bringing that kind of passion, swagger, and intensity to the court?

On this year’s team, the one guy I’d want backing me up in a knife fight is Rick Jackson. He’s a bully down there, and has that swagger. But Rick strikes me as something of a lone wolf. Even though he’s our best player and only senior, my removed fan perspective is that he hasn’t taken a definitive leadership role in firing people up and demanding the rock in crunch time. As great as he is, he seems like an exceptional role player. Strong and silent. After that, we’ve got:

Scoop Jardine - The first one killed after he stakes all hopes on a flashy but errant dagger throw.

Brandon Triche - Even after 2 seasons, a completely inscrutable personality. Perhaps a robot. Goes down when his off switch gets nudged in the scrum.

Kris Joseph - The guy on the team that I’d most like to hang out with, but I want him nowhere near my knife fight. His favorite movie is The Notebook, he’s from Canada, speaks French, and seems exceptionally nice.

Baye Keita - Another awesome-seeming guy (whose #12 t-shirt I’ve unsuccessfully scoured Syracuse for multiple times this season) who would be cut to pieces almost instantly - likely the result of a savvy double agent exploiting his trusting nature and language barrier confusion. Keita is also, presumably, fluent in French.

Fab Melo - Only recently have I stopped hearing an imaginary soundtrack of tuba music every time he steps onto the court.

Dion Waiters - An assassin trainee.

C.J. Fair - Somewhat valuable in terms of finishing off other people’s messes, but that baby face and whispy stache isn’t leading any kind of purposeful strike at this stage.

James Southerland - Seems painfully shy and self-conscious with more than 5 people looking at him at the same time. Not knife fight material now or ever.

I realize that ferocious intensity isn’t the only thing you need to win basketball games. But I’m submitting that it’s a necessary counterpart to talent, good coaching, and luck in building a championship team. If one piece is missing, you’re not going to make it. The NCAA tournament is a knife fight. On the road to the championship, you’re going to get beaten up, surprised from behind, and pinned with your back to the wall. When that happens, do you have the players who want it badly enough to lick their wounds, keep their head, and respond by doubling the intensity?  I hope they prove me wrong, but this year - I just don’t see it.

10 Comments

  1. Posted March 17, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Well…shit.

  2. Ric
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    You’ve got one of these guys wrong….Brandon Triche is a cold blooded killer. Brandon beat Jonny Flynn in H.S. on a TORN ACL. Brandon is about the most clutch player in the nation, let alone this team. He just needs someone a little better than Droop Turnover-Dine to get him the ball

  3. Rob
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Totally need Devo:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9984r1y1UeY&feature=related

    I’d take Dion in an actual knife fight. Basketabll knife fight? You’re right…

  4. Posted March 17, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I agree in general with the premise. I also see that attitude in the different ways that some of our more charming/popular players in the past have had something nastier lurking underneath that’s necessary in competitive sports.

    Kris Joseph’s smile and good nature have always made me nervous because of how different they are in nature to Carmelo and Flynn’s similarly friendly outward appearance. Those dudes’ smiles reminded me of Sam Jackson smiles, when he knows he’s about to kick your teeth in, and by the way he slept with your wife the night before, and he can smell victory, and he knows it’s gonna be awesome, so why wouldn’t he be smiling? Life is good, and he loves his people, and his people love him. And are you not entertained?!?!

    Whereas Kris Joseph’s smile has always been more of a ‘I’m just a nice guy’ smile. Not scary at all.

    You didn’t mention Wes Johnson — he also had the megawatt grin. But ultimately he probably was more of a Kris Joseph type, just with 5-star triple A talent rating. After almost 365 days, I’m still not sure why Wes wasn’t able to will us past Butler. With his skills he should have been able to, if he had remembered to bring his knife to the fight.

    Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have two of the greatest smiles in sports history, and both of those dudes drink the blood of virgins late at night in their basements. That’s what you want on your team, no doubt.

    Maybe your post will give us a little reverse jinx. That’s my only hope.

  5. Tom
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Well said about the nastiness underneath. As for Wes Johnson, I didn’t mention him because at the end of the day I don’t think he possesses that quality that we’re talking about. Super nice guy, great player, but not a nasty bone in his body. He’d put up great numbers, but seemed to disappear in big moments while other guys took over.

    As for Ric’s comment about Brandon Triche, hey, maybe. I hope he’s right. But I’m not sure I’ve detected a single emotion flash across Brandon’s face in two years. He’s talented, but I can’t get any kind of read on the guy as a person. He seems perpetually detached, does he not?

  6. Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    Triche seems like he’s got tons of potential to be that guy who never sweats and has no problem hitting huge shots, because he’s got ice-water in his veins. But is he a killer? No, no way. Killers don’t play 35 minutes and shoot 2-5. He’s way too passive. Maybe that will change in the next two years, but right now he pretty much never imposes his will on anything.

    The fact that evidence in his favor is a high school game from 4 years ago makes the pro-Triche argument even weaker. He’s got to show us something at this level if he wants to be a knife-fighter.

  7. bkg07
    Posted March 18, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I think Triche could have that killer instinct, but he’s stuck watching Scoop take his knife and make those arrogant, errant dagger throws. Triche needs the ball in his hands. Last year he was our best PG, with Andy coming off screens for 3’s. Now for whatever reason he’s deciding to defer to Scoop who doesn’t have good enough decision making skills to be a go-to PG. He was great last year as an energy guy off the bench (I think his stupidity was mistaken for a ’spark off the bench).

    Triche could have the instinct, but first he needs to tell Scoop that this is the Syracuse Orange, not the Jade Scorpions…

  8. Posted March 18, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Tom, once again you have brung the creative. Fantastic.

  9. LC
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    LMAO! A-game commentary all the way! Thanks Tom.

  10. SyracuseDoc
    Posted March 22, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Really well put, Tom. I do think Dion Waiters is a fearless player who has the heart of an assassin. He was our most consistent player in the Marquette game when the season was on the line. I have high hopes for him. He’s fast and confident and delights in buckling the knees of defenders assigned to him. He gives me hope for next year. Sadly, I think you are right about the others.

    We may have had fewer assassins than you list in the history of SU hoops. Remember, a team with Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Sherman Douglas, lugging their 2 seed, lost, inexplicably, to the Richmond Spiders and their 15 seed. Aside from that game, Derrick Coleman was undoubtedly seen as a son-of-a-bitch by SU opponents.

    And let’s add to the good knife fighters, Pearl Washington. He once punched Patrick Ewing in the gut during a game. if he wasn’t a knife fighter, I don’t know who was. Pearl played with a smile too, but it was a cold-hearted gunman’s smile.

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