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.