It was a magical run. They won game after game. The wins kept racking up. There was the opening win off NCAA tournament darling Northern Iowa, winning the Legends Classic in Atlantic City, the brutal beatdown of Colgate, the crushing win over Michigan State, and beginning Big East play 5-0. This team was young and wasn't supposed to be anywhere near as good as last year's squad. And yet, they vaulted up to as high as No. 3 in the rankings.
And now? Now that magical run seems like more of an illusion. We look back and see that the Michigan State win doesn't mean nearly as much, we remember squeaking out wins over the likes of William & Mary and Iona, and that team that seemed to be able to do no wrong and was exceeding all expectations is now crashing and burning.
A loss at Pittsburgh without Kris Joseph? Alright. A loss at home to Villanova? Disappointing but games like that happen. An epic failure against Seton Hall at home followed by its first loss to Marquette in Big East play? If it isn't quite panic time, it's certainly not far away.
Problems on Defense
Guards aren't nearly active enough. Not only are they allowing penetration but they're allowing some uncontested 3-pointers. At the very least they should concentrate on stopping one of the two and usually it should be based on whether the player in a deep threat or not. Early in the season they were jumping out on the shooters and able to recover fast enough to create a double team and often force a turnover. Some of the problem has to do with entering Big East play and facing tougher guards but a lot of it has to do with the guards not being in the right spots and not rotating quick enough. Once the offense gets through that first line of defense it creates so many options to exploit and the opponent has been capitalizing on this.
Defenders beating them along the baseline. Jae Crowder anyone? Marquette's Crowder lived along the baseline and finished with a game-high 25 points. Aside from one 3-pointer, nearly all his points came within a couple feet of the bucket. The back line of that zone has been slow to react and when they do they aren't in position and are forced to foul. Baye Moussa Keita and Fab Melo combined for 32 minutes against Marquette and committed 9 fouls. Hey you two - you're tall. You don't need to lean to prevent a player from scoring. Stay vertical, make the shot difficult and then box out. Blocking shots is fun but when a defender is coming at you, you have to just stand your ground.
Some people have written that teams are discovering the secret to beating the 2-3 zone. It's not as if there is some magic spell that suddenly makes the zone ineffective. Syracuse has been running this for years. The players just aren't executing the way they need to do make it effective.
Problems on Offense
More unforced turnovers. The turnover situation is a bit deceiving. They are averaging just slightly more turnovers per game during the four-game losing streak than during their 18-0 start but the types of turnovers have been much worse. There have been a lot more unforced errors and since the defense isn't forcing as many turnovers these errors are magnified. We tend to forget the errant pass when Syracuse is up 15 but not when they're clawing back from a deficit and down by five.
Getting outhustled to rebounds. They've been outrebounded in 3 of the 4 losses and have been particularly porous on the offensive glass. Marquette outscored the Orange on second-chance points 8-2. It might not sound like a big stat but second chance points are momentum killers and soul-crushing to the defense.
Inability to get to the free throw line. This is where they got killed against the Golden Eagles. Marquette made 24 of 33 free throws compared to just 8 of 14 for Syracuse. It's tough to overcome that type of disparity. A little of the blame can be placed on the refs but much of it must be placed on the Orange for not forcing the issue and drawing those fouls. But I can understand why they wouldn't want to do that since they shoot a league-worst 63 percent from the line. How can a team that does so well recruiting not get players that know how to make a free throw?
Not enough offensive talent? I've been hearing this one a lot lately. It seems like every announcer has mentioned this in regards to Syracuse's problems on offense. I don't buy it. Kris Joseph is an elite scorer from the inside and outside, Rick Jackson is a great post scorer who makes great decisions, Brandon Triche is shooting about 40 percent from 3, Scoop Jardine has a big body and can finish around the rim (although, less recently). The bigger problem is they haven't had a consistent spark off the bench. This team is still young and while they have played 8-9 players, after those 4 leaders no one has been a reliable offensive threat.
The Orange played a much better second half against Marquette and had a few players really hustling out there. Kris Joseph made a bunch of clutch shots to stop a few Marquette runs, Keita didn't back down and contested a lot of shots, C.J. Fair provided a big spark off the bench, shooting 5 of 7 and blocking 3 shots, and Jackson was an efficient 6 of 7. In fact, the offense was fairly efficient. They shot 57 percent for the game and 46 percent from deep. Their 3-point shooting has gotten much better from early season struggles.
That's enough of that. More negativity! James Southerland didn't play for unknown reasons and Dion Waiters didn't play because he cursed out Boeheim during the loss to Seton Hall. Of course, Boeheim said it was because he had been playing poorly (true) but it was more than that. If he was just playing poorly and still practicing hard he would've been able to give Scoop a breather. Jardine played all but 1 minute and that might be a reason he had a few "ScOops". There was an offensive foul, the alley-oop from halfcourt, a rocket to Melo, and getting picked near halfcourt. He's caught a lot of flack but he is carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders. He has gone from being a sixth man to attempting to be the man and he hasn't quite been able to make that leap.
A subset of all these problems is the inconsistencies in playing time and lineups. The players, not Boeheim are to blame for this but how are they supposed to jell without any kind of consistency? I'll trust Boeheim but I'd imagine this has been very difficult on the players.
"They will get better." said Boeheim. "I just don't know if it'll be soon enough." He was talking specifically about the big men but I believe it applies to the entire team. They're all still learning their roles and they each have their problems they need to overcome. It's a lot but this team will get better. But will it be soon enough?
-How about those clutch 3s by Marquette? Unbelievable!
-4:05 Butler hits a step-back 3 with one second left on the shot clock. Marquette leads, 63-59
-1:56 Butler calls a timeout with 6 on the shot clock. They inbound to Darius Johnson-Odom who gets doubled and finds Butler in the corner for 3. Marquette leads, 69-66.
-1:02 Johnson-Odom knocks down the triple with one second left on the shot clock. Marquette leads, 72-66.