One game a season does not make. That's the ultimate takeaway for the Syracuse Orange after its ugly and tough loss to Temple in the Gotham Classic (finals?) Saturday afternoon. In fact, as a lot of fans pointed out on Twitter, had Syracuse made more free throws it probably ends up beating the Owls. So, all things considered, things aren't really that bad.
It's a philosophy I totally agree with, too. Just look at the box score! The Orange collectively went to the charity stripe 34 times and made just 19. Ugly. Sophomore star Michael Carter-Williams missed 8 of his 15 attempts alone. So, a couple of bounces here or there and the result is probably flipped around.
The problem? Syracuse isn't even a 65% free throw shooting team as it is. The shooting at Madison Square Garden was a low point, but missing free throws is already an epidemic for Syracuse -- and those type of issues aren't usually correctable, at least not in season. That's a major weakness -- decades old for the Orange program. Boeheim has shown crafty ways to get through having poor free throw shooting teams, so this flaw doesn't mean Syracuse is doomed.
Still, there are flaws. And Syracuse has a lot to figure out before it can live up to the early season hype. I don't mean to say one loss a season makes, as a Final Four run is still very much in the cards, but I think the first eleven games of the 2012-13 season has left Orange followers with more questions than answers.
The Rotation: Specifically the Bigs. As in, which low-post player is going to step up and make significant contributions. Let's look at Dajuan Coleman: The Orange starter hasn't played more than 17 minutes in a game since Syracuse's blowout win over Monmouth. Against Temple Coleman played 4 minutes total and was a complete ghost in the second half.
And it's not just the raw freshmen having trouble staying on the court. Fellow starter Rakeem Christmas is also getting spot minutes, not playing more than 25 minutes in a game once this season. Plus, the second year player who was expected to make something of a leap this season, is averaging seven points and five boards a game. Not bad for someone always being pulled from a game, but not what Boeheim is expecting out of that position.
I don't think any team in the country can hope to win a national title while at the same time watching two starters, its starting center and power forward for that matter, sit the bench for the majority of every game. And remember, it's not like the bench is loaded with major contributors to replace Coleman or Christmas. I love what Baye Keita has given the Orange this season, and his entire career really, but Keita is more of a spark plug playing starter minutes -- that can't continue. The zone is still effective with Boeheim's smaller lineup, but its nowhere near as effective as when the Bigs are in and active. With Coleman being so unproven, it's likely going to have to be Christmas who gets "it" together to fill starters minutes with starters productivity.
Trevor Cooney: Cooney's ceiling is still very high: a good shooter willing to get scrappy on defense (a lot like the way Mike Hopkins went after it during his time). But I can't help to think that if the guard position had a little more depth Cooney wouldn't be playing much during important games. It's not his fault, Cooney is a redshirt frosh still feeling his way around D1 basketball, but if he is going to continue to see time (which there may not be any other choice) he's going to have to start being more of an asset than a liability.
What's that mean? Well, I would guess Boeheim would take 10 or so minutes from Cooney with a couple of makes from distance and some hard defense. I don't think Cooney has to have a huge impact for Syracuse to be successful, but he has to do a little more than what he is doing now -- which has been taking rushed shots and fouling too often.
Half Court Offense: Was anyone complaining about the Orange and the offense when Syracuse put up 108 points earlier this month? No. Not even close, actually. This, instead, is more an observation of Saturday than of the season. But what the Orange did on offense in the second half against Temple won't work against teams like Louisville, Georgetown, and Pittsburgh. Too many iso plays not enough actual sets. Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche tried to dribble away from screens and then get to the rim on just about every play -- those two are extremely talented, but that's not an offense, that's playground.
Again, it's a one-game case study, still you have to at least be a little concerned that once punched in the mouth Syracuse reverted to that type of offense. I'm fine with running screen-and-rolls, but when that's only the option? Yikes.
Carter-Williams: As leader of the offense, and one of the best point guards in the country, Carter-Williams certainly needs to be called out a little for his play Saturday, too. The sophomore seemed rattled by the Owls defense and, again, missed way too many free throws (perhaps rattled there by the "Lord and Taylor" chants). Basically, Carter-Williams just didn't seem himself. He's been way too good this year for anyone to really harp on Carter-Williams, but a lot like the half court offense, he can't go one-on-one every play and he can't have so many careless possessions (like dribbling the ball out of bounds!?). I'm totally willing to chalk this up to just one bad game, especially given the first ten games, yet, things will get much more difficult starting next month.
I think all of these issues could linger all season, like inefficient free throw shooting, and the Orange could still end up being a Final Four team. I mean, a team with the talent of Carter-Williams, Triche, and C.J. Fair, and the developing game of senior James Southerland, will be better than most teams anyway. But I think it's much more likely that Syracuse needs to shore up its problems in order to make a deep run come March or even contend for the Big East. Next month alone will bring the Orange a back-to-back at Providence (a dangerous team getting its parts together) and at Louisville.
Meaning: Temple may be an aberration, but we'll find out soon.