We are now four games into Syracuse’s “regular season,” and while little has changed since the pre-season games, the players and team are starting to improve and round into form. The San Diego State game was not much to watch, given the wind and sunny conditions, but the players may have been able to take away something for when they play in tough conditions on the road later this season. Wagner was a joke, but Princeton is probably an NCAA team and Colgate is much improved. Tonight is a big matchup against Arkansas in the Big East vs. SEC challenge so below are some updates on how the players and team are coming along:
The key players on this team, as expected, are going to be the starting guards, Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. Everything on offense starts with them and their defense at the top of the zone will be instrumental for creating turnovers and/or converting turnovers into transition points. Essentially, the rest of the team needs to play good defense, rebound decently and make easy baskets created for them by these two players for the team to succeed.
MCW has been racking up assists while turning the ball over infrequently and taking better shots since the SDSU game which, again, was akin to playing an NHL game on a pond, so I won’t hold that one against him too much. He is beating his many easily, but instead of trying to score himself, he’s reading defenses well and creating five-on-four mismatches. He then either finds a teammate down low for an easy finish or kicks it out to another teammate on the perimeter who can then either shoot or drive to the basket, himself. Beating that first man will become more difficult against better opponents, and I think teams will eventually start to sag on him to let him shoot from the outside, but I still don’t know that there are many perimeter defenders in the entire country who can consistently guard him one-on-one. At 6’6”, he is a tall point guard who can pass and shoot over most guards, but he’s also incredibly quick and, while not a great shooter, at least has to be respected somewhat from outside. Even if defenses do play off of him, he will still able to back defenders in and put himself in a position where he can score, which is how the Syracuse offense is going to start on virtually every possession when he is on the floor this season. For that reason, this team is going to go only as far as he takes them. It would normally seem like a lot of pressure to put on a sophomore who played only about 10 minutes per game last season, but he seems prepared for it and up for the challenge. Even if he cannot consistently create the offense as easily as he has thus far, if he can limit his turnovers and keep control of the offense, he will be doing what is needed from him.
The two biggest beneficiaries of MCW’s drive-and-kick success have been Brandon Triche and James Southerland. Triche still seems to struggle with determining when to play aggressively versus letting the offense come to him, but he has mixed up taking outside shots with strong drives to the basket after receiving kick-out passes from MCW. It seems to be when Triche tries to start the offense that he gets himself into trouble, but there has been less of that recently and more of deferring to MCW which, again, has worked well. Southerland has looked great shooting from outside and has played the sixth man role to perfection thus far. As all Syracuse fans know, however, he can be streaky and has struggled in the past against better teams.
However, maybe I’m just being optimistic, but he seems to be playing more carefree this season, as though he knows he will not get a quick hook from Boeheim if he misses a couple shots. With that, he’s shooting more confidently and making threes consistently. He has also created transition opportunities with his improved rebounding and some timely steals. At times, however, he seems lost on defense and still gives up way too many corner threes, which will always draw Boeheim’s ire. If he plays “well enough” on defense so as not to be a liability, then his instant offense off the bench as a sixth man will be important for this team.
While CJ Fair is doing the typical scrap and hustle things that he always does, he’s struggled a bit on offense while playing the small forward position. CJ isn’t exactly the type of player who blows by defenders, but he has a variety of pump fakes and “old man” moves that are difficult to stop when he plays the four position and gets the ball down low. However, with two other players on the post, he needs to move farther away from the basket to receive the ball to avoid crowding near the basket. This puts more importance on his ballhandling abilities, which are decent but not strong, and gives defenses more time to slide to him when he does beat his man. He will also be counted on to shoot more from the outside. He’s proven capable of that, but the team will need him to do so consistently. Because of the zone defense, CJ’s ability to rebound and play defense will not be compromised because he will not have to play defense any farther from the basket when playing the three position, however.
The rest of team is collection of role players who have performed those roles well. Rakeem Christmas is playing the center position well on both offense and defense. He’s not the same shotblocker that Fab Melo was, as he’s at least three inches shorter, but he can defend the post and has been rebounding decently. He is not trying to do too much on offense, but has demonstrated some skill and shooting touch with a variety of offensive moves on the occasions when he does get the ball down low. While he’s no offensive superstar, and probably never will be, his improvement versus last year is a good sign that he will continue to develop that aspect of his game. Baye Moussa Keita has been a pleasant surprise in terms of playing very good defense and rebounding well, but also finishing the ball much better on offense. However, it still feels like a “bonus” when he does convert layups or dunks, let alone catching the ball down low, much like it was always upside when [insert former Syracuse center—Melo, Onuaku, McNeil, etc.] made a free throw.
While current big man Dajuan Coleman does actually shoot free throws well, he still needs to work on his post game as he is clearly still adjusting to the college game where he’s not playing against scrawny (at least compared to him) 6’4” high school “centers.” He brings the ball down below his waist too much after he receives it in the post, which as any color commentator will tell you (over and over again…), takes away his height advantage. He needs to work on quick, strong moves to the basket. Somebody really just needs to give him a tape of Jared Sullinger and say, “just do this when you get the ball.”
The two other freshman, Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant, have not received big minutes so far, even against these weaker opponents. Cooney’s strength was supposed to be his outside shooting, but he has not yet demonstrated it. I expect it will come around, but he has still been doing the “little things” that are important, especially to Boeheim. He plays good defense and gets his hands in the passing lanes, which creates steals. He is serviceable at drives to the basket given the opportunity, but is also smart enough to not force it. While MCW and Triche are going to get heavy minutes for this team, it will not be a big concern if Cooney needs to come in to get them some rest or take them out for foul trouble. Grant has shown flashes of what he can do in terms of his versatility—rebounding and playing defense with steals and blocks, but also driving to the basket and finishing down low, especially against Colgate—but has also shown flashes of playing like a freshman, especially against Princeton. I still expect him to become a terrific player, but as the third string small forward, it is going to be difficult for him to get a lot of minutes this season.
Tonight’s game against Arkansas will be a great barometer for where this team is and where it can go. Arkansas is by no means a top team, but playing against their full court defense on their home court will be a big test for Syracuse. MCW may struggle with this a bit, but having Triche to help him is reassuring. They will also need to rely on their forwards to help them bring the ball up the court—I just hope that it is Fair who does more of this than Southerland. I do think Syracuse will win tonight, and handily, because they are not exactly the type of team that you want to press, given their speed, finishing ability and usual reliance on transition offense.
As I’ve mentioned before, this Syracuse team is just wildly athletic, which is going to win them a lot of games by itself this season. Their defense is good, but not great. They play solid defense, but do not force as many turnovers as last season or three years ago when they had previous “very good” teams. I am more confident now than in my season preview that this could also be a “very good” team after seeing MCW’s capabilities to run the point and the rest of the players accepting their roles and executing them well. Again, this team will go as far as MCW and Triche take them and it’s looking good so far.
The only teams I have seen that look as good or better than Syracuse have been Indiana and Michigan, both of whom I watched decimate their ACC opponents on Tuesday night. Michigan let NC State back in the game at the end, but they were in control the whole game and probably let up a bit at the end. Indiana probably looked better than they really are as this is clearly not a good North Carolina team. I do think Syracuse can play with either team though and neither is definitively better than the Orange. Michigan’s primary player is Trey Burke, against whom I think MCW could do well on the offensive end, but I think Burke would hurt Syracuse with his ballhandling, passing and shooting abilities. Indiana has Zeller, but Christmas and Keita’s athleticism and ability to run the floor with him would negate many advantages he has over other teams who have either size or athleticism down low, but not both.
Some would argue that Duke belongs in this same upper echelon of teams, but I just haven’t seen it yet. Yes, they’ve beaten some good teams, including Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State, but I think all three are a little overrated and Duke did not beat any of them handily. That’s not to say they aren’t very good teams, or that they will not get better in the case of Kentucky with it’s slew of inevitable NBA superstars. But I just do not think that a) Kentucky is ready yet, especially without a true point guard, b) Louisville is all of a sudden that good of a team just because they made it to the Final Four last season after struggling for most of the year or c) Ohio State is a lot more than Deshaun Thomas on offense and Aaron Craft on defense now that they are without Jared Sullinger.
My rankings, as of now, would be: 1) Indiana, 2) Michigan, 3) Duke (I will give them some strength of schedule benefit of the doubt), 4) Syracuse, 5) Florida, 6) Ohio State, 7) Louisville, 8) Kentucky, 9) Kansas, 10) Creighton…50) UNC.
After some good basketball from some very good teams the last few days, enjoy what is likely a big step down in what is likely the last Big East-SEC challenge.