Dec 13, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
So it came to pass that, 12 days before Yuletide, an early gift appeared under the tree of Syracuse University basketball fans that did not involve birds, gold, maids, dancers, lords, pipers or drummers.
Yes, the Orange were atop the national rankings, a fortunate occurrence, which had more to do with the defeats on the same Saturday of Kentucky (at the buzzer to Indiana) and Ohio State (without Jared Sullenger at Kansas) than it did with SU’s own fine play.
Still, no one argues the point that this latest Orange edition is one of the nation’s best, with a real chance to snare the program’s second NCAA championship – and at the same Final Four venue, the Superdome in New Orleans, where Melo, G-Mac, Hakim and company won it all in 2003.
So much is different now. And the differences go way beyond the well-documented Bernie Fine saga, where SU’s administration acted with both swiftness and wisdom, dismissing Fine, but resisting the urges of the self-righteous crowd to get rid of Jim Boeheim, too.
Besides, by all accounts the players, and other coaches, have absolutely nothing to do with the allegations, so punishing them made zero sense. The fact that they tuned out the circus, focused on basketball and kept on winning was pretty admirable, too.
Another main difference from ’03 is the makeup of this team. There’s no NBA lottery pick here, and there’s a good chance that none of the main guys in the rotation might stick in the pros. But it’s the depth, and variety, that’s likely to drive future opponents crazy.
Trying to guess which player will step up on a given night is a futile enterprise, but you’re almost guaranteed that one or two from the quartet of Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters will take over at a key point.
Go inside, and instead of the confused, overwhelmed Fab Melo of his freshman year, you’re getting a slimmed-down, supple big man who’s a consistent inside force with the help of Baye Moussa Keita.
Every other game, there’s something quite good from C.J. Fair and James Southerland. And while freshmen Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams are still getting used to the speed of the college game, their contributions are growing.
Add it up, and that’s 10 solid players, far more than the cores of Boeheim’s best past teams. Better yet, they play defense real well.
This depth gives SU the freedom to either go with the tried-and-true 2-3 zone or, at any opportune moment, spring a full-court press that can be quite lethal. Active hands have produced a team that leads the nation in steals, and Melo and Keita are good for a few blocks in the paint.
Oh, and the offense is good, too. Without the need to depend on a single star to produce baskets, SU has the luxury of waiting to see who gets the hot hand, and then riding it. Even the free-throw shooting is inching up, better than 68 percent this year (66.5 percent a year ago), and only because Jardine and Melo, with their bricks, drag the numbers down more than five percentage points.
What to take from all this? Perhaps it’s a lesson, painfully learned by Boeheim two years ago when a similar prize was for the taking…and Arinze Onuaku got hurt in the Big East Tournament, leaving SU vulnerable in the round of 16 to Butler in a wild NCAA affair where most of the other favorites fell early before Duke held off Butler at the end.
Prior to that, and even in ’03, SU’s train of thought was that, with long TV time-outs, a deep roster wasn’t really needed, that as long as five to seven core players were present (and no one got in foul trouble), great things could happen.
The 2011-12 Orange appears to provide a direct contrast to that earlier approach. Now, if someone in the 10-man rotation (knock on the nearest piece of wood) does get injured and sits out an extended period, it’s not a mortal wound. Others are capable of stepping in and producing. Put simply, it never hurts to have options.
Regardless of the current high status, though, SU will lose a few times. Everyone does. No one since Indiana in 1975-76 has recorded an undefeated season in Division I, and Big East foes know every nook and cranny of SU’s system and will get to them.
Still, the snowy winter (and yes, we’ll eventually get some snow, right?) in Central New York is made a bit more tolerable by the excitement this particular SU team could present, maybe all the way to that first Monday night in April in New Orleans. That’s when being no. 1 counts for something.