It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but the reality is that this year is not so far off the tracks as it might feel. In fact, so far things have gone almost exactly as some of us predicted. It’s painful to go through while you experience it, but the truth is only the Cincinnati game has gone the other way from what might have been expected. We’re one game off the pace that some of us in the space saw coming; a pace that allegedly leads to an NCAA birth. Just one game. I know it doesn’t feel like it, and I know those 7 losses look awful, but when you predict a bunch of early season losses by an inexperienced team, and then those losses materialize, you have to accept them and have faith in the original theory. We should have been mentally prepared for these bumps.
Now comes the turning point. According to the prognosticated narrative for the 2008 Syracuse Orange, the worst is over. This is evident from the schedule, the results so far, and the fact that there’s no longer an option. The story goes as such: a young team has taken its lumps, learned its lessons, been hardened by defeat and mistakes, has reached the brink of big victories multiple times, and is now prepared to win games in this league. There can no longer be any question as to whether or not these guys understand what it takes to win Big East games. They know now, for certain.
I think this theory holds water. I think that three weeks ago there’s no way this team could have beaten a Providence, at home or otherwise. But today, and especially by next Sunday, I think this team is more than prepared to handle a team like the Friars. I can’t promise they will; but they are, at least, prepared.
After the break, I break down why:
Here’s why: there were so many teachable moments in the Georgetown game that only a team of incorrigible uncoachables wouldn’t be able to absorb the lessons. The Villanova game was tight until the final two minutes. The Hoya game was tight until the final buzzer sounded. Everything that Boeheim, Hopkins, Fine and Murphy say during this week will have credibility, because now there is a body of evidence for what works and what doesn’t. They have 7 Big East games under the belt. The coaches have a week of practice and now they can point to what has been effective and what has resulted in losses. Finally they can say to these youngins Do you believe me now? And the guys will believe them and listen, because they’ve seen it in real life and experienced it themselves.
There have been signs of improvement all over (Scoop Jardine notwithstanding). Against Georgetown I saw intense, determined defense for nearly all 40 minutes, including all of OT. The defense against Villanova was also noticeably un-bad. In fact, in the last three games there has been very little evidence of the early season habit of disinterested, unfocused, and confused play on the defensive end. I’m not saying Georgetown didn’t get some open looks from 3 and some nice inside baskets, but those shots were the result of a determined, patient, and precise Hoya offense, not lazy Syracuse defense. The Hoyas have one of the most efficient offenses in the country and they’re going to earn themselves some open shots. I really felt SU made them work for every last inch, however. Similarly, we gave up 81 points to Villanova, but the Wildcats only shot 39.7% from the field. Rutgers shot only 40%, and the methodical and disciplined Hoyas were held to 43%. In other words, there is reason to believe many of our defensive flaws are beginning to be addressed. Without the foul trouble against Nova things would have been very different; with a more intelligent offense against Georgetown, things would have been very different. Lessons learned.
Rebounding: a wash against Nova and blowout superior performances against Rutgers and Georgetown. Is rebounding still a concern? I think not. Have the lessons sunk in? I think so. Similar to the defensive issue, these guys now have an appreciation of the level of effort and energy required to rebound consistently in this league; and similar to defense, they’ve shown they can be up to the task.
Turnovers: still up and down. Sometimes we’re patient, sometimes we’re sloppy. It hasn’t been fixed yet, but it rears its ugly head less often. Turnovers were a major problem against Nova, and back against WV, but not against many other teams recently. They have it under control to the point where I can’t say ball handling keeps me up at night. That was uncertain a month or two ago, so again, I see progress. Only Jardine still makes me nervous when he has the ball.
Offense: this was the most teachable aspect of the Georgetown game. At long last, it has to sink in that this team cannot stand back and hoist threes. With the Hoya game on film now, there can no longer be any reason for players to think that bombing away from deep can be a formula for victory. The offense, and Donte Greene’s game, were terrible in the 1st half because so many balls were flying from long distance. Even a blind man could tell that the key to the 2nd half comeback, and eventual lead, was the dedication at half-time to getting the ball inside. To my eternal delight, the first ten to twelve minutes of the 2nd half were a clinic on how this Syracuse team can be effective against some of the best defenders in the country. They used all their advantage with inside scoring to methodically overcome the Hoyas superior discipline and experience. It was brilliant to behold.
Then the worst possible thing happened: Flynn and Greene made a few threes in a row. It all crumbled after that. At the time it seemed like a massive burst of energy and momentum, and JT III was forced to call timeout after SU’s lead ballooned. But in reality all it did was plant the seed back in our guys’ heads that long distance shooting might be a good idea. They seemed to think, the dry spell from the first half is over, now we’re hot! But this team isn’t going to be hot from deep, ever. They’re not good enough. Not without Rautins and Devo. Regardless of a few threes dropping in, there’s no excuse to fall back on jump shooting. Unfortunately those few that dropped in the 2nd half, all in a bunch, gave them confidence and ruined the offense for the rest of the game. This is a coachable phenomenon, and god willing Jimmy now has the tools to pound this tendency out of them for good. If the team had taken ten fewer threes against Georgetown, they would have won it in regulation.
The point is, all the lessons this team could possibly need to learn have now been learned. We’re not even half way through the Big East season, so they still have time to make up for the early L’s. In fact, all they have to do is exactly what I predicted they would do, plus find one extra win to make up for the Cinci loss. They are as prepared as they will ever be, and it has to start now. We have the opportunity to finish the first half of the Big East season 5-4. Providence can represent a big win and resume booster. DePaul can give us a much needed road win and a boost in the standings. Now, at last, I think they have the tools to do this thing. Lets see.