Watching the arc of yesterday’s handling of Villanova — demoralizing start, followed by exhilarating run to take the lead, and then the steady maintenance and enhancement of that lead until you look at the final score and think “they must have had it the whole way” — a thought occurred to me. Well, many thoughts occurred, but one in particular stood out because it’s not something I’ve recently associated with Syracuse basketball:
This team has brains.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like previous Syracuse squads have been exceptionally moronic (shut up Georgetown fans!) but the current group, so far, seems that much more composed in its decision-making. They seem to make fewer bad passes and take fewer bad shots than their immediate predecessors.
The lion’s share of this change falls on the shoulders of Tyler “Canada Smooth” Ennis. The praise for Ennis’ point guard play has been both plentiful and richly deserved. He has one of the top assist-to-turnover ratios in the country (4.4:1, currently around 25th nationally) and has shown the poise of a senior this year. Contrast that with Michael Carter-Williams last year, who managed a 2.1:1 ratio. As dynamic a scorer as MCW was, he did have a penchant for bad decisions: driving the lane and then getting caught with no good shot and no good passing option, or trying to push the ball in a fast break and losing it out of bounds. He seemed to inherit that trait from Scoop Jardine, who could be a brilliant passer but was also prone to visits from the bonehead fairy. Throw Dion Waiters in there, who would sometimes get it in his head that he was the only one capable of scoring (which, to be fair, was sometimes true) and would force up threes or fall-away jumpers. A little further back in time we have “Unforced Eric” Devendorf, king of the ill-advised dribble drive.
The problem was not limited to the guards, either. Fab Melo shooting jump shots. Paul Harris throwing inbounds passes to Pitt players. You can even go back to the post-championship quartet of Demetris Nichols, Darryl Watkins, Louis McCroskey, and Terrence Roberts. All of them were highly skilled ballplayers; all of them routinely earned early hooks from Boeheim for making some dumb play or other, even into their senior seasons. You know who doesn’t do that? CJ Fair. He never has.
You know who else? Jerami Grant. Trevor Cooney. Baye Keita. Michael Gbinije. Even Rakeem Christmas has smartened up this year. He’s not taking jump shots or leaving opposing players wide open on the wing. He has accepted, and is playing within, his role on the team. The team has taken on the personality of Fair and Ennis — don’t go crazy, don’t get too up or too down, just run your stuff like you practiced and more often than not you’ll come out on top.
At the moment, Syracuse is 26th in the nation in Turnovers per Offensive Play, at a 13% rate. Last year their rate was 15.6%. Granted, you expect this to rise a bit as they play better defenses over the course of the year, but it’s still an impressive number. There isn’t a “bad shot percentage” but if there were, I’d expect it to be supremely low this year. I’ve seen nearly every minute of every game and I can barely recall muttering “THAT was a dumb shot” the way we all used to in the past. Boeheim has designed an offense to play to these guys’ strengths, and the team is sticking to the game plan in a way that past teams have not always been able, or willing, to do. (A notable exception would be the Wes Johnson team that had one of the most efficient offenses in school history.) That patience, persistence, and general smart was one of the reasons they were able to weather the awful start to yesterday’s game and just methodically take it over.
We’ll see if this trend, and the team’s composure, holds as the competition continues to stiffen. But for now, the signs are quite encouraging, and have got me starting to think big. (Just a little.)
If you want to order one of the “Syracuse basketball lawn zombies” pictured above, just search “syracuse basketball zombie”. I had no idea such things existed before I started writing this post and looking for an appropriate image.