C.J. Fair; Syracuse's true Sixth Man of the Year (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Of the many reasons why Syracuse is 28-1 on the season and has been able to succeed despite off court issues and the three game absence of arguably the team's most important player is leadership. Seniors Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph have spent four years together in the Salt City, have been through good years and not so good years. They're veterans in every sense of the word and are showing it during their final campaign.
One or the other always seems to step up his game when it's needed. One game it's KJ dropping 29 to carry the team to victory against the despised Hoyas. The next it's Scoop hitting clutch shots to spark a game sealing run against South Florida. They know this is their last go round and refuse to go out quietly.
But they can't do it alone. They may be the stars and the playmakers, but without the supporting cast, this Orange squad would slide from "elite" to "pretty good" in a hurry. Everyone has a role to play and an important one, but who is the key player, the glue guy? Many might say its Dion Waiters, and he's a good choice. He provides a spark and swagger of the bench that keeps the level of play high even when the reserves are in. He's explosive on both ends of the court, leading the team in steals and often turning them into breakaway dunks. Waiters is certainly the sexy pick. But another choice is do-everything forward C.J. Fair. Looking at the numbers, he may be the better choice.
This week: C.J. Fair; Sixth Man of the Year.
Making an effective comparison between Waiters and Fair is tough because their roles and styles of play differ so much. Waiters is a player that generally dominates to ball to create his own points where Fair almost always gets his chances off of positioning and good passes from his teammates. Fair is a much better rebounder and shot blocker at the back of the 2-3, where Waiters is excellent at applying pressure and getting steals at the top of the zone. To use any of these stats for comparison would be to give one player an unfair advantage.
To get a more balanced comparison, I used the Roland Rating, an advanced +/- statistic that combines a teams performance with and without a particular player on the floor per 40 minutes. It is the net result of the teams performance with and without that player (Roland Rating = player on court team point differential - player off court team point differential). It's designed to be a measure of the player's impact on the team, not his basketball skill.
Using this metric, it's surprising to see CJ so far ahead of Dion in the Roland average. The perception is that Dion is the key, the catalyst. The one who makes things go. But in all but the first two games of the season CJ has outranked him. Now, both have trended down and CJ more dramatically so, but he still maintains the edge, 7.7 to 6.6.
A differential of 1.1 might not seem all that drastic a difference, but it has to be taken in context. Syracuse's margins of victory have been slim of late; three against Georgetown, one against Louisville and even games they've won going away have been close affairs until the end. So, while the Roland average make only end up with a difference of 1.1, the metric is designed to measure a player's impact on the whole game, not just the final score.
So, what does it all mean? While Dion is a great basketball player and likely a surefire pro, he's more style than substance. In no way is that a slight to his importance to the team. He brings things to the table that no other Orange player can. It's only to say that he does things that draw attention, but not much else. CJ, on the other hand, has a well earned reputation as a do-everything, garbage man type player. Sure, he can fly in for dunks and is a good shot blocker for a small forward. But he's just as likely to bury a 12 foot baseline jumper or get a garbage steal off of a broken play. There's a reason why Dion might be in at crunch time during one game and on the pine another, but CJ is always there when it matters the most. He's the more consistent, more impactful of the two. He's the rock, the glue guy. He's the guy that takes the Orange from "good" to "great". For that, he's my Sixth Man of the Year.