This author has been following basketball since well before Al Gore’s Internet became mainstream. Well before. Before cable TV even. In fact, his first real memories of basketball just so happen to coincide with Jim Boeheim’s first season as coach. Having watched 35+ seasons of Syracuse basketball, this author is nowhere near convinced that the current edition of Syracuse basketball is made of players that should be 25-0 at this point. Nah, this team is a team that should be a 22 or 23 win team right now… good enough to be a national title contender, but flawed enough to be vulnerable just about every night. The sum of its parts, however, is that it is the first of those teams to go 25-0. And it deserves to be 25-0. Here is why.
First, think of all the great players to play for Syracuse. You might think of the era between Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams. You know older people that mention the era between Derrick Coleman and John Wallace. And yet older people still reference the Bouie & Louie through Pearl Washington era. Others still remember the pre-Boeheim era of Dave Bing and the final four run with Rudy Hackett. Whether those stars thrived in the NBA or not, there has been amazing talent to pass through Syracuse.
For all Cooney’s shooting prowess, do you think he is better than Andy Rautins, Gerry McNamara, Marius Janulis, or Rafael Addision? We know Rakeem Christmas is not Roosevelt Bouie, Rony Seikaly, or even Etan Thomas. CJ Fair has great moves and fluidity, but is not the dual threat that Carmelo Anthony, John Wallace, or Billy Owens were. Jerami Grant has potential, but his outside shot is still developing. And Tyler Ennis may be as cool a freshman as there has even been at the point, but there have been Syracuse teams led by NBA players like Sherman Douglas and Johnny Flynn. There have been deeper teams. And so on.
This team is talented, but it is not hard to find Syracuse teams that have been talented. None of them got to 25-0. Indeed, it’s not talent alone that gets a team to 25-0.
Second, the idea of “luck” has to be part of the analysis. Maybe that luck includes the good fortune of having the refs make the right call and the right time. Even when the refs seemingly blow call after call for both teams for 38 minutes (as measured by passionate fan bases watching the same game through different colored lenses), Syracuse has been the beneficiary of getting the right call when needed. Last night, the refs properly and correctly did not allow North Carolina State to have the benefit of a continuation call. Had the refs unluckily blown the call, Syracuse’s burden to win would have been that much higher. But the ref got it right. If you think refs do a poor job, then it has to be luck when they get a call right. If there is luck, that’s it.
Otherwise, it is not clear that there is luck in hitting a 35-foot shot or having a team turn the ball over against you. Those events do not happen in a vacuum. Frankly, a 3-foot shot that is ricocheted in by an attempted rejection is more lucky than hitting a deep shot. And when you play tight defense and the opponent–perhaps not as calm as he had been the rest of the game–turns the ball over, that is not luck either. And it is not luck to race back the other way and score. There was little or no luck this past week for Syracuse. It put itself in a position to win games where other teams might have been down 8 to 10 points… and then won those games.
Third, let’s build on that last point. Syracuse may not be able to put away teams (a flaw!), but it is not able to be put away either. Villanova was up by double-digits against Syracuse and could not maintain it. Once Syracuse got back in it, anything could happen and it did. Pitt had the home crowd and nice leads many times, but never got up by enough to keep Syracuse from getting back into it. If you are going to be in a close game with Syracuse, do not expect to win it just because you are up 2 or 4 or 6 with two minutes to go. Sorry, you’ve got to play those final two minutes as well as the prior 38. If not, do not be surprised to have a loss.
Fourth, the flaws for this Syracuse team are there. For all the talent that is there, there is not enough of it to dominate teams. It is not a dominant team that routs opponents by 20 a night. Syracuse has one reliable 3-point shooter. The interior game has lost its depth and is inconsistent. If you force Fair and Grant to take jump shots, they will miss as many as they make most nights. Ennis is not a deadly outside shooter and often is fairly silent for the first 80% of a game offensively. Even Jim Boeheim has recognized that this team has played poorly enough to be a 20 win team. Even Jim Boeheim recognizes that the offense has to get better to continue winning. And he emphasized both of those points last night, while also mentioning that 25-0 is meaningless without a deep tourney run. Those flaws cannot be ignored just because the team is 25-0.
Finally, but the 25-0 is well-deserved. At the end of 25 games, the scoreboard showed more points for Syracuse than the opponent. They may have missed some shots, but they made enough. Ennis might have been a quiet distributor for 32 minutes, but he was likely a very active distributor and scorer those final eight. And he most certainly kept the turnovers to a minimum. The team likely got very clutch at the free throw line down the stretch. And they most definitely played solid defense.
Indeed, if you look at all the painful March elimination games recently, the same trend always develops. Too many turnovers–especially against an opponent that does not turn the ball over. Missed free throws. Missed bunnies. Defensive lapses. Rarely does Syracuse get eliminated because the other team is more athletic or talented. Instead, it usually comes down to Syracuse not controlling the things it can control (care for the ball and mental focus). And that makes the elimination all the more painful. It is also ample fodder for some of the many talking heads in the media who fairly, but vocally, point out that the results did not match up with the talent.
Well, the 2013-2014 team is the opposite. It plays better than its individual talent level. It does not turn the ball over as much. It makes free throws. The defense gets better from minute 1 to minute 40. The talking heads can criticize–that is their job, of course. But they realize that this is a team that is doing what its more-talented predecessors could not. It is playing New York Giants ball control offense and stifling defense, rather than Buffalo Bills K-Gun offense. It is playing Seattle Seahawks defense, rather than Denver Broncos offense. The media should love this team. And it does–even though Syracuse fans routinely obsess about the few talking heads that fairly point out flaws… you know, because it is their job to make things interesting and entertaining because it is entertainment after all.
In any event, this team seems to grasp, if not thrive on, the fact that if it is not going to excel at these things the first 35 minutes, then it is going to step it up the final 5 minutes. And then step it up even more the final minute. If that continues into March, the team might find itself playing in April. That is what is expected of a 25-0 team. If it does not maintain these trends and actually improve, March may be a disappointment. But, although there are no trophies for being 25-0, the 25-0 is legitimate and deserved.