Opening Statement: this season is rustling a few Orange fan feathers. You might describe Syracuse’s overall play somewhere between panic-inducing, gut wrenching and dare I say exciting. Jim Boeheim’s troops currently tout a 14-5 overall record and are 5-1 in ACC play. That fact bears repeating but for the sake of redundancy, I’ll let the readers make that call. For many college basketball teams that record would be a season to tell their friends about. Throw in the fact that Syracuse has just one starting senior in Rakeem Christmas (you may have heard of him) and things might start to take form. So why is it some Syracuse fans are ready to call their doctor for a refill on their anxiety medication? Could it be that we are a spoiled fan base not used to losing a game before January? Or is it the impending doom expected when the NCAA announces its ruling in the investigation of Syracuse? While each of those questions may hold validity, I suggest the answer can be found quite easily. Look no further than the last 3 games on the schedule, two of which are wins! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you the facts in the case of why Syracuse fans that have one foot on the ledge should take a giant step back to safer ground.
Exhibit A: a game dubbed “Wake Forest: The Greek Tragedy That Almost Was”. The Demon Deacons showed up to the Dome with a 9-8 record, two losses coming by the swords of Louisville and Duke. They were well known for employing a fast paced offense and would certainly look to continue that. Syracuse meanwhile was riding a 6 game win streak. Rakeem Christmas was morphing from seedling to fully grown Navel Orange while Trevor Cooney was busy finding his 3 point shot. After the few aforementioned facts presented, for the sake of argument put yourself in a Syracuse fan frame of mind. Now sprinkle in a little math and science of the ACC conference as we know it. After a few pre-game beers, this would surely lead you explaining to your buddy why this game should be a 10 point Orange victory. But you’ve forgotten one thing. Wake Forest rolled in on their Trojan horse and deployed Konstantinos Mitoglou. His 26 point performance helped Wake push the game into overtime. Not to be outdone on his home court Rakeem Christmas put up a career high 35 points and carried Syracuse to a narrow 86-83 victory. Honorable mention to Trevor Cooney with 21 points of his own. Overtime against 1-3 ACC opponent just isn’t acceptable. Albeit thankful for a win, Syracuse fans instantly begin experiencing symptoms of slight chest pains and anxiety.
Exhibit B: Littlejohn Coliseum for a late Saturday afternoon date with the Clemson Tigers. As newcomers last season, Syracuse established who they thought the real Orange around the ACC was with a 57-44 home victory. Fast forward to January 17th 2015. Subtract Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant and you have an inexperienced Syracuse team in hostile territory. Clemson came in sporting a nice overtime win against a ranked Arkansas team earlier in the season but had losses to teams like Winthrop and Rutgers. If Syracuse fans saw this and were like myself, they might have been slightly bewildered. Despite the inexperience and a road game in the ACC, fans still expected a win. Instead, Syracuse hardly showed up. Clemson began the 1st half hotter than breakfast at a Waffle House. At the under 8 timeout, it was Clemson 21 and Rakeem Christmas 9. Halftime saw the game seemingly already won, 39-18 in favor of the Tigers. I’d bet a shot of Jameson that at this point there was a Syracuse fan watching that had already shut the game off in disgust. Clemson finished with 3 starters in double figures and shot 40% from the 3 point line. For Syracuse, the only bright spot was Rakeem Christmas again. I can’t recall a game where Trevor Cooney played worse. He went 0-5 from downtown and had just 5 points, all coming from the free throw line. Usually sound guard Michael Gbinije struggled. The Orange fell 66-53 and I sensed symptoms stemming from the Wake Forest game were being exacerbated. But a young team on the road played a poor game. They lost for the first time in ACC play. Regardless of the opponent and a few acceptable excuses for a loss, some fans had their hands on the phone ready to call to a physician.
Exhibit C: Let’s examine the most recent game against Boston College. The Golden Eagles entered the Dome at 8-8, without a single ACC Conference win. That fact might have had a few fans and perhaps players alike looking past BC. However, flashback to last year when this BC team came in and unraveled Syracuse’s historic 25-0 start (I still blame the jerseys that were worn that night). Back to present time with many of its players returning, BC came in with something to prove. They could knock off a quality opponent on the road for its first conference win. A recipe for disaster can be seen fairly easily. Meanwhile, Syracuse was looking to avoid a second two game losing streak of its season. There was no way Syracuse could lose. Right? Despite a hot BC start, Syracuse took a 35-17 lead into half. Lacking some depth down low due to a Chris McCollough injury, the team had to avoid foul trouble. In true Murphys Law fashion that I believe is contagious to Syracuse, Rakeem Christmas picked up 4 fouls by the 16 minute mark in the 2nd half. Forced to play without him for most of the 2nd half, Michael Gbinije stepped up big time and ultimately saved the Orange a second straight humiliation. The game ended 69-61 but the score fool wasn’t fooling anybody that watched. Syracuse came gut-wrenchingly close to blowing a late 13 point lead with anything but clutch FT shooting and a couple late turnovers. Fans watched what should have been a blowout turn into a close victory against a team without a conference win. And therein lies precisely my point. The team found a way to overcome adversity and win. It got help from a mostly reliable guard in Michael Gbinije. The score doesn’t matter when a team wins. Sports are beautiful like that. But it was too late for some. The calls were being made and prescriptions were being ordered. Diagnosis: Syracuse induced panic, anxiety and insomnia.
Closing argument: we see reasons why there is panic among the fan base. All of which can be argued as valid concerns. The team struggled to close out a couple sub par ACC opponents. While there are the almost automatic double-doubles coming from Rakeem Christmas, players like Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije and Tyler Roberson are grasping for consistent performances in the last 3 games. Late game free throw shooting and carelessness are rearing their ugly heads. But aside from the struggle to find a consistent good team performance, the fact remains that Syracuse has won two of its last three. How some fans can still be pressing the panic button is slightly maddening to me. Most likely it’s the ACC schedule that lies before us but as we’ve seen with games like NC State beating Duke, there are never any cupcakes in the ACC. I believe Syracuse fans need to slow down and look at the facts. The team has 14 wins and is 5-1 in conference play. They’re dealing with the loss of a starting freshman that before injury was a probable one and done and still winning without him. But most importantly, it’s time to remind themselves that no matter how ugly, a win is still a win. To quote BC head coach Jim Christian, “they’re 5-1, guys. I wish I was struggling like that.”