I want everyone to take a moment and think back to early December. It was a simpler, more innocent time. The President was assuring us that the economy was still strong. Rudy Giuliani was a lock to win the Republican nomination. And in the world of Syracuse basketball, we were marveling at the incredible offensive talent on this team. The running, dunking. The relentless, high-energy attack. “Most exciting and dynamic offense since the days of Sherman Douglas-to-Stevie Thompson.” Or words to that effect.
I hate to resort to clichés — no, wait a minute, no I don’t. I love clichés, they make blogging easier. Here’s one for you: “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins games.” If you ever doubted that maxim, the past two SU games should convince you otherwise. We had two fugly offensive showings. Just painful to watch. It got so bad during the Providence game that at one point I just buried my head under a pillow and listened to Jake and the Fatman call the action for a little while. (That didn’t last, because they rarely took time out of their conversation to describe the actual events transpiring on the court.) I didn’t get to see the DePaul game but from what I’ve read, it sounds about the same.
Yet look what happened. If you’d told me 8 weeks ago that we’d win a conference game scoring only 60 points, I would have laughed in your face and called you a funny name. But the team has taken the energy that they used to devote to the high-flying offense and channeled it into their defensive effort. Some time in the last couple of weeks — perhaps the Villanova game, perhaps going back to the early road losses to WVU and UC — the team (both players AND coaches) realized that they were no longer going to be able to win pretty. Luckily, they have now discovered that they are capable of winning ugly. So they have reinvented themselves as the Wisconsin of the East.
You know Wisconsin. They are the Big Ten school known for winning lots of games by scores like 56-52. The past few years they’ve had a better offensive game than they had historically, and have scored in the 70s many times — this year they even cracked the 80-point barrier once or twice. But their reputation is that their game is a defensive slog, an endurance test, a battle of wills more than skills. Before they got national respect, they were an opponent that you’d tend to discount. “Sure, they are holding their opponents to 61 ppg, but they haven’t faced an offense as dynamic as ours” you might say. Then when you shot 34% and lost the game, you were dumbfounded. Wisconsin was the college basketball poster child for sustained historical success through ugliness. They rarely sent guys to the NBA, but they compensated for lack of elite talent by instituting a game system that got the most out of the players they did have.
To me this seems the best parallel for what the SU squad has done in the past two weeks. The players have bought into the idea that winning ugly is better than losing while looking good. This is a hard lesson for young players, especially stars, to learn. But they have learned it. I don’t know whether it was just a matter of time before the coaches’ message sunk in, or if the repeated setbacks on and off the court finally opened the young guys’ eyes to the situation. Or maybe it was a deliberate change in strategy promulgated by the coaching staff. Heck, it could just be that it takes time to learn how to properly play the zone. But the change has been so rapid (think back just 18 days to the porous defense in the WVU game) that I think there has to have been some conscious decision behind it.
So where does this leave us? I don’t know, and neither do you. So, let’s just tune in on Saturday and see what happens.