"There is just no excuse the way we are rebounding right now. It's a team effort; it's everybody, it's not one guy. Right now, I don't think we're a good basketball team because we can't rebound." - Jim Boeheim, after the Georgetown game Wednesday.
I say this as a Syracuse University fan, alum, and basketball fan in general: The Orange will not win a national championship this season if they cannot rebound.
By now we all know the gory details. In the loss to Notre Dame, the Orange were outboarded by a gruesome 37-24 margin. These are the same Fighting Irish who lost their best player, 6'8" forward Tim Abromaitis, to a season-ending knee injury. This is a team who only has one legitimate big man in their regular rotation, "The Grinch" Jack Cooley. (You see, because he tried to destroy Christmas… ahem.)
But more on Cooley in a minute.
They righted the ship, at least temporarily, against Cincinnati. However, that was a slim 36-35 edge that looks more like an aberration than a positive sign as that game gets further in the rearview mirror.
SU then resumed their rebounding slump against West Virginia, losing that battle 41-20. Yikes. They coulda-shoulda lost the game as well, but we all know what happened there.
The Orange looked to bust out of their board slump against a very young St. John's squad, and rightfully did so with a 38-25 advantage. SU's domination of the glass led to several exciting fast breaks, including a dunk by Michael Carter-Williams that fans are still talking about.
However, against Georgetown Wednesday night, it was more of the same old. Even though they pulled out the win in overtime, the Orange got smeared all over the Carrier Dome glass to the tune of a whopping 48-30 deficit. That's -18 rebounds. I know this because I stared at that number for about ten minutes before starting to write this column.
"It's been a problem all year - rebounding," SU forward Kris Joseph said. "We're just going to have to do a better job of locking on that."
Joseph said that to the Post-Standard's Donna Ditota on January 21, after the Notre Dame game. So it isn't like this issue is news to them.
It was easy for SU fans to blame the ND loss on Fab Melo's absence. Volumes have been written about why # 51 is important to the Orange on both ends of the floor. But I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret.
They would have lost that game with or without him.
Melo averages 7.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, so if you do the math you know that he wouldn't have singlehandedly made up for the 13 board deficit against the Irish. The aforementioned Mr. Cooley - and after the way he manhandled the Orange last month, he deserves to be called "Mr." - put 17 points and 10 rebounds on Melo's replacements, an increase over his season averages of 11 points and 8.6 rebounds. Even at a listed 6'9" and 250, Cooley is not nearly the caliber of athlete as Rakeem Christmas, Baye Keita, or C.J. Fair. But there he was, bullying his way into the paint and seemingly doing whatever he wanted under the basket. Even though Melo provides a larger post presence than any of his teammates, I'm not convinced he would have been able to turn the tide. Why? Because of our second dirty little secret.
Like Boeheim said, rebounding is a team effort.
One man does not make a great rebounding team. That goes double for teams who play zone defense. You know, like SU. The Orange could trot out Dwight Howard and Kevin Love and still lose the battle on the boards if everyone else doesn't pitch in. Because defenders guard places and not people in a zone defense (and I'm generalizing here), it is commonly accepted that zone teams have a tougher time rebounding than man-to-man teams. The zone makes it more difficult to find an offensive player and box him out.
Difficult, but not impossible.
Rebounding is hard work. You have to be willing to sacrifice for the common good of the team. Bumps and bruises are a way of life in the paint. A player may have to put a body on an opponent so his teammate can freely secure the possession. Guards might have to drop down and mix it up with much larger players in order to come away with the ball. But rebounding is the ultimate team-first act in basketball. There are no selfish rebounds. No one will complain if a player gobbles up all of the loose balls. You just have to want it more than the other guy.
There is a tremendous upside to good rebounding. It generates extra possessions. It starts fast breaks, which are the heart of SU's offense. It creates mismatches and easy shots. Guards who rebound get a head start down the floor. Big men who rebound are rewarded for their efforts.
I think this year's team is capable of rebounding, but time is running out for them to prove it.
Rick Jackson made a respectable career off of rebounding. Derrick Coleman had more than anyone else in Big East history. SU coaches know what it takes for rebounding greatness. Now it's up to the players to show how badly they want to be the best team in all the land - and rebounding will be the key.