The Syracuse Orange closed out the regular season on Sunday with 74-58 win over the Florida State Seminoles. The win earned the Orange a 27-4 mark for the regular season, a record that, any other year, would have SU fans jumping for joy. This season, though, the fact that Jim Boeheim’s squad went only 2-4 over their last six has many of the Orange faithful’s panic-o-meter cranked up to 44.
Yes, the Orange had their seasonal slide a bit later than usual. True, that slide included a couple of really bad losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech. And, of course, one fairly dominant win over the ‘Noles doesn’t erase the flaws shown by Syracuse late in the season. So, let’s take a moment to take the long view and grade the Orange as they prepare for the post season.
Point Guard: A-
Normally, I don’t get excited over recruits, no matter how highly touted. Making high school players look silly is nowhere near playing college ball at its highest level. Thanks to Syracuse’s summer tour of Canada, though, we got to see super frosh point guard Tyler Ennis from the very beginning. Even back then, I was impressed by his composure on the court. Still, I don’t think anyone expected him to be this good. No, he’s not a flawless player but Ennis has played like a veteran from the second he put on an Orange jersey. Without him, Syracuse wouldn’t have won ten f*%$ing games. Even with his flaws, Ennis gets an A+ from me. He’s the Orange’s most important player and has handled that responsibility with uncanny aplomb.
So why an A- grade for the point position? Because Ennis is the only one. His backups are more place holders than replacements. Don’t get me wrong, Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije are competent secondary ball handlers, but that’s where their contribution as point guards ends. So, despite the fantastic play of Ennis, the lack of a true backup is a weakness for the position overall.
Shooting Guard: C+
Inconsistent. That one word sums up the off guard spot for the Orange. Both Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije have had good moments for Coach Boeheim. Yet neither has been able to maintain that success, though for different reasons. Cooney suffers from the ups and downs inherent with being a three-point specialist. His struggles are more pronounced because, much like James Southerland last season, Trevor is the only consistent three-point threat the Orange have. When he’s not hitting from deep, Syracuse isn’t hitting from deep. The effect that has on the team overall was painfully apparent during the last six games. The Orange simply couldn’t score enough points to get Ws.
Gbinije’s inconsistency is due to lack of court time. The Duke transfer typically spells the two guard spots in the first half and then sees very little time unless there’s foul trouble in the back court or specific game situations call for his defensive prowess. When the injury bug bit the Orange, Gbinije was forced to play small forward as well. It’s great that Jim B has a player who can fill in at three positions. But Gbinije’s lack of experience on the wing in the 2-3 was clear as defensive lapses on his side were common.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m piling on these two. Both have their strengths. Gbinije is probably the Orange’s best one-on-one perimeter defender. Cooney, when he’s hot, can be a game changer. Their bright spots, though, can’t outshine the fact that the 2-guard spot if a real weakness of this squad. The two of them need to shore things up if the Orange are going to make a deep tourney run.
Small Forward: B+
Most people smirk and snicker when I compare C.J. Fair to Carmelo Anthony. It’s a comparison I’ve been making since C.J. was a sophomore. Clearly C.J. isn’t the natural talent that ‘Melo is, but the similarities are obvious to me. Both make their living in the mid-range. Both can score in a variety of ways. C.J. has developed quite the repertoire of NBA-ready moves that would make Carmelo proud.
Still, I was expecting a bit more from C.J. as a senior. I had visions of him being he 20/10 guy that Carmelo was. That’s not to say that Fair hasn’t been great. The Orange needed every single one of his career-high 28 to beat Duke. Just under 17 points per game is nothing to sneeze at. He’s nearly doubled his assist average from last season. He’s really rounded out his game. Yet it seems like only recently that he’s realized that there’s no one who can guard him one-on-one. No one. He showed flashes of it throughout the season, most notably against Duke in the Carrier Dome. C.J. needs to play that way every game. He can get pretty much any shot he wants at any time and needs to impose his will on games more often.
As for other threes on the squad…what other threes? Much like the point guard position, there really isn’t a true backup. Gbinije has played some time at the three, but only when the Orange have been short-handed. C.J. isn’t averaging close to 38 minutes per game for nothing. So, as good as he’s been, the lack of depth is a knock against the position overall.
Power Forward: B
It’s not hard to see how the game against Florida State highlighted how important Jerami Grant is to this squad. One of the commenters over at TNIAAM put it succinctly (and I paraphrase), “Syracuse won by 16. Jerami Grant scored 16 points. Coinceidence?” Yes, of course, it’s a conincidence, but that doesn’t change the fact that Grant is critical to the success of this Syracuse squad. He’s this year’s version of Hakim Warrick.
Grant, along with Fair and Ennis, gives the Orange a reliable third scorer. He’s also a monster on the boards. He’s a key cog in both areas that the Orange needs to excel in to win; scoring efficiently and clearing the defensive backboard. When he was hampered with back problems, Syracuse struggled. When he was healthy, the Orange usually won handily. Also not a coincidence.
Still, Grant is very raw. That’s the main difference between him and the aforementioned Warrick. Hakim was both a freakish athlete and a fairly skilled post player for a sophomore. Grant still leans a bit too heavily on his athleticism. And, again, there’s the question of depth. Tyler Roberson has gotten a good amount of burn backing up Grant. Most might not consider 8.1 MPG a “good amount”, but that’s a lot for a freshman under Jim Boeheim. Roberson has more games played than not, which is encouraging for what Jim B sees in the young man. Still, Roberson falls more into the category of placeholder than true replacement, which knocks the grade of the position down a bit.
The center position is interesting. Most people bemoan the lack of depth, but it’s the one position that has a clear-cut starter and back up. It’s the one position on the roster where not only is the reserve player a truly comparable replacement for the starter, but there’s really no drop off at all. True, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita are two very different players but they both know their roles and perform them well.
The five man on this squad has one job and one job only; protect the paint. Even rebounding is secondary to that. Neither Keita nor Christmas is an eraser like, say, Fab Melo (ducks), but both are veterans in the middle of the zone and that alone makes them key components to this team’s success. There are those that clamor for more production out of the position, but I see their impact similar to that of Trevor Cooney. Cooney’s job is less to score and more to work hard off the ball and to occupy a defender at all times. His importance is intangible. The same goes for the bigs. Directing traffic at the back of the zone. Altering shots. Taking up space in the lane. These are the things that are needed from them, and they do them well.
It sounds like I’m describing a pretty “meh” performance from the pivot. So, why an A-? First, it’s all relative. The Orange don’t need a dominant post presence to succeed. The team is not built that way. If anything, they need someone who’s going to stay out of the way. Second, I really like what Rakeem Christmas has done lately. He’s shown great progress in becoming a skilled offensive player in the post. He’s still the 5th scoring option, but the fact that he is an option adds a wrinkle that the Orange haven’t had since Rick Jackson donned the Orange.
Overall Grade: A-
I’ll admit, I rounded up a bit for the final grade. There’s no doubt that this Syracuse team is flawed. The last six games of the regular season made that painfully obvious. Still, the first 25 games showed that, when 100% healthy, Syracuse is very, very tough to beat. Remember, the only team to beat Syracuse when the Orange had a full roster was Duke. It’s hard to be disappointed by dropping a close game at Cameron Indoor.
Late season slide and all, Syracuse is one of the handful of top teams in the country. They’re a legit Final Four contender and have just as good a shot at winning it all as anyone else. A better chance than most, truth be told. Does it seem right to say that about a B+/A- team? This season, why not? Call it parity, call it a down year for college hoops. Call it whatever you want. Whomever cuts down the nets in Houston is going to be a far from perfect team. That puts Syracuse in good company.
What do you think? Love it? Hate it? Leave your comments below.
Chris Daughtrey is the creator and author of Bleeding Orange. He is a contributor at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician and at Atlantic Coast Confidential. You can connect with him on Twitter @OrangeBlood 44 or search #OrangeBlood.