Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters -- players who have made their name by putting up big numbers from off the bench for the Syracuse Orange. As James Southerland sets to join those first-off-the-bench players of the past, there is something bigger happening at SU than who is first up off the pine.
Syracuse Orange basketball fans are easily agitated. This does not separate them from any other fan base, it's just a matter of point. Orange fans hate the same old same old. Things like the "Syracuse NEVER leaves the state" argument trumpeted by writers and talking heads looking for anyway to cut down another successful Jim Boeheim team will forever anger the fan base.
It's the repetition Orange followers don't care for, viewed as boring and lazy.
So, as is their nature, and Boeheim's for that matter (which makes a perfect match when you think about it) the finicky fans have already grown tired of the "sixth man" plot when it comes to Syracuse basketball. Yes, in 2010, Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph were both putting up huge numbers for a highly ranked Orange team. The two were major reasons why Syracuse earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The surprising part, especially to the college basketball nation that didn't catch on until later in the season, both Jardine and Joseph came off the bench. With so many one-and-dones, it's rare to have a great sixth man, and somehow Syracuse had two great sixth "men."
And of course just last year Dion Waiters, a player many thought was going to transfer in the preceding summer due to issues with Boeheim, propelled the Orange all the way to the Elite Eight and himself into a lottery pick in the NBA's draft. A player who needed to grow up actually doing so? A player who's talents far exceeded just about everyone else on the team willing to come off the bench? An unreal sequence to the hardened college hoops fan expecting nothing but the negative.
The nation has started to label Syracuse University "Sixth Man U." With merit, too. I mean, when you look at the last few years, and consider the first three games of the 2012-13 season, "Sixth Man U" seems to fit. The team's leading scorer so far is James Southerland, a player who, and hopefully you're sitting down for this, doesn't start! Despite that, Southerland is averaging just over 15 points per game, tied with Brandon Triche. Actually, if you take away Syracuse's first game against San Diego State, which was played on a boat if you didn't hear, Southerland is averaging 18.3 per contest.
There you go, a top tier Syracuse team has yet another player putting up huge numbers despite not starting. That's the narrative. One likely to rile up fans upset the nation is missing the point. Mainly that Southerland, just like Waiters last year, and a lot like Jardine and Joseph before him, is averaging more minutes in game than some starters. At 25 mpg, Southerland is getting almost ten more minutes of court time than DaJuan Coleman alone.
Syracuse has had some great sixth men, Southerland another example, but when a player is earning more playing time than starters, that player should be able to cash in, be it with points, assists, or some other statistical category. It's not the fact that SU is producing valuable bench players that has fans bored with the story line, it's the fact that the nation is missing out on the bigger picture: Boeheim has fine-tuned his philosophy. This at 68 years of age, no less.
The Hall of Fame coach has always been thought of as an NBA style college coach, allowing players to be themselves -- essentially not being the overbearing teacher/mother hen. But for decades Boeheim was criticized for setting his sights on a NCAA title with a scant few players in his rotation. Run with seven guys? More like 6.5. But that's different now. Boeheim has turned to his bench for significant contributions. And in doing so, he has allowed players like Jardine, Joseph, Waiters, and now Southerland, to make some and miss some plays. To evolve with the flow of a game. A major change.
Plus, how Boeheim was able to convince Waiters, again, an unhappy player, to play the bench role without tearing the team part, I'll never know. It speaks to Boeheim's treating "men like men." When we read about Boeheim running things like an NBA team, it means more than just Xs and Os -- it's a way of life in the program. Act accordingly or get out, Boeheim is not here to babysit and players of this generation are responding.
Of course, there is the other side to this change for Boeheim. A lot of the reason Boeheim is relying on key bench players more and more is because the younger big men, highly rated recruits, aren't ready to jump in and go from day one. Now let me preface, young bigs usually require a lot of marinating before seasoning into dominate players. But, when someone like Rakeem Christmas or Coleman, or even Fab Melo, struggle, the Orange needs an experienced player, be it in the post or on the wing, to come in a carry the load.
Fans all groan and grumble when Christmas or Coleman get yanked after one simple mistake, but Boeheim knows there is a bigger problem. Multiple missed assignments on defense or a wrong read on a screen are usually what leads to someone getting pulled, not just a bone-headed shot or bad turnover. Without someone like Southerland to help fix those mistakes, Syracuse would certainly have had an even closer game against Princeton last week.
Coleman tallied 16 minutes in a game with the Tigers that was as close as six points in the second half. Southerland, who scored a career high 22 points, put in 30 minutes. SU would have likely won that game regardless, but Southerland made sure there was no question about it, hitting big shots, late. All while Coleman, a "starter" sat on the pine.
In the end, this sixth man phenomena is really more about Boeheim adjusting. Ebbing and flowing with the river of college basketball. Trusting the talent that's not just in the starting five and to reacting to the fact some of the bigger talents aren't ready for starters minutes, despite the fact they are on the court for the opening jump ball.
At one point all Boeheim was known as was a recruiter, then it was a good coach who's stubbornness to alter lineups may have cost him, to now, where he is willing to change and adapt some three plus decades later. It's a testament, to be able to hang around this long, constantly tinkering, and, all the while, winning.
And for all that makes the Orange fan base angry, winning will never upset any one of them.