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.