Welcome to the first Syracuse basketball roundtable of the new year! After a long offseason, the Orange are back on the court and have a lot of hurdles ahead of them if they hope to replicate 2013-14's regular season success. We're encouraged about what lies ahead, obviously, and are looking forward to what 2014-15 brings.
As is and will be the norm all season, we've opened the floor to (some of) the basketball TNIAAM wing to discuss this week's burning questions about Syracuse on- and off-the-court, the ACC and more. Join us below:
Most surprising development for Syracuse basketball through two games?
Ben Burrows: How much of an impact Rakeem Christmas is having on the offensive side of the ball. We all know JB said a lot of stuff about him during the offseason but he was going to say Christmas improved no matter what. We are seeing Christmas getting plenty of volume and he’s scoring efficiently. Last year he was a non-factor on offense and this season it looks like he has a legitimate post game.
Matt Constas: .: Rakeem Christmas has been better than expected, but we also expected a lot more out of him this year anyway compared to other years so it isn’t too much of a surprise. I’m just more surprised through two games he is the team’s leading scorer. I thought Chris McCullough would set the tone here, and obviously there is a lot of season left for the freshman to adjust and for the senior’s numbers to come back down to earth, but either one on top works for me. Right now, Christmas is doing as well as Syracuse fans hoped times two. I did not expect him to be their main offensive force, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it continue.
Michael Burke: How well B.J. Johnson has played. Aside from maybe Rakeem Christmas, he was the team’s best player in the season-opening win against Kennesaw State, when he had 19 points, nine rebounds, and four assists. He didn’t play as well on Sunday, but Boeheim kept him on the court for 26 minutes. I’m sensing Johnson’s going to get plenty of opportunity this season, which I hadn’t previously expected.
Matt McClusky: I think Rakeem Christmas' role on offense, although detailed in great length prior to the start of the season, is a pleasant surprise. Foul troubles will continue to be an issue, which will likely sap his playing and his eventual key role on offense, but for now? I'm happy to see the senior big showcase his offense game will not sacrificing his defensive moves.
Dan Lyons: We touched on this yesterday, but I think that Rakeem Christmas' play has to be it through two games. I don't expect him to go out and put up 18/11 every night, but he looks like a totally different player than what we've seen from him in the past. He's clearly the focal point of the offense, he's confident, he looks for his shot and attacks the boards, and is still a very solid defensive presence. I, for one, welcome our new Rak overlord.
Sean Keeley: That the sophomores are going to provide good groundwork. We knew Rakeem Christmas was going to be productive and we figured McCullough and Joseph would settle in to their roles. Cooney remains a wild card so we need a good base of producers to churning out rebounds and points to keep the engine moving. Hope to see these guys continue to grow.
John Cassillo: Would've said "scoring" after the first game, but now, will just go with B.J. Johnson's leap in productivity. We'd all (myself especially) pegged Michael Gbinije to be the guy who took that patented Syracuse "leap," but it ends up that Johnson might be the guy who really comes into his own this season. Stay tuned...
Could rebounding actually be a strength for this group in 2014-15?
BB: I think so. Obviously you are going to get rebounding from Christmas and Chris McCullough but BJ Johnson has rebounded the ball very well and I expect Michael Gbinije to do the same when he picks up more minutes. Cooney does a fine job when the ball comes to him and Kaleb Joseph has looked good crashing into the lane to help out, too.
MC: I think it could be. Christmas has been a menace on the glass. It seems as though he is coming in with a whole new swagger, and as the senior leader that should rub off on everybody. The Orange have four players averaging six or more rebounds per game and the starting guards have combined for six per game. Also, once the schedule gets harder, I’m not sure if we will see Syracuse’s opponents missing 35 shots per game. This is something we will have to wait and see as their opponents strength and physicality start to compare with that of the Orange.
MB: Eh, I don’t know. I’m not quite ready to go there yet. Obviously, Rak and Chris McCullough will get their rebounds, but Syracuse didn’t rebound all that well on Sunday. The Orange were even being outrebounded at one point late in the second half. So we’ll see.
MM: Hampton seemed to give Syracuse all it could handle on the boards, and the zone has always made grabbing lose balls (ha!) an issue. So, I don't know if it will be a big strength, but Christmas grabbing double-doubles will only help. I'd like to see more of a sample size before I say this year will be better or worse than the usual.
DL: Christmas and Chris McCullough both look very good on the boards, and Tyler Roberson has shown some prowess there as well, so I'll say yes, with the caveat that I am very worried about what happens when the two main frontcourt guys, especially Christmas, get into foul trouble. I think that this team can go from very good rebounding team to a struggling rebounding team in a hurry.
SK: Could be! Of course, let's see how we do against some bigger, more talented squads. But considering the lack of big man depth, it's a surprising positive so far.
JC: Yes? Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough aren't even on their own out there, which gives us some real hope. B.J. Johnson and Tyler Roberson have also gotten in on the act (as have others), so yeah, I'd say we could see an Orange team that's actually proficient on the boards this season.
Who's your team MVP for the Orange thus far?
BB: Christmas. It’s a lame answer but it’s true. He looks so much better on offense than last year and he brings great defense. If he can learn to be more vertical when contesting shots, he cuts down on fouls and stays on the court longer.
MC: Rakeem Christmas.
MB: Rakeem Christmas, no question. He’s been awesome, averaging 18 points and 12.5 rebounds through two games. If it weren’t for him, Syracuse might’ve been on serious upset alert against Hampton.
MM: K. Joseph! Christmas is probably the obvious answer, but Joseph, in just four halves, has shown the ability to get to the rim while also looking for open teammates. Point guards are like quarterbacks, you can't win without that position being filled by a capable if not dynamic player. I think Joseph is proving himself more than up to par.
DL: Not to bore everyone with the repetitive answers, but it is Christmas for all of the reasons that I outlined above. He is the rim protector on one end, as he was last year, but has emerged as a credible offensive threat as well. If he continues to score well on the inside, it will open everything up for the rest of the offense.
SK: Gotta be Rak. Every good Syracuse team has one solid rock they could count on. Christmas is going to be that guy this year. His numbers will probably come down but he should be able to provide consistent production all season long for everyone else to benefit from.
JC: Who else but Rakeem Christmas? The guy's been a monster through two games and while the win over Kennesaw State may have been a group effort, you can feel free to credit Christmas with most of the victory over Hampton if you want. He's really grown as an offensive player, and I'm excited to see if that lasts the full season.
Trevor Cooney: Playing too many minutes right now, or the right amount?
BB: He’s playing too many minutes. That’s not a knock on Cooney. You shouldn’t have guys playing 34 minutes per game. Especially ones that spend most of their time on offense running around screens. Don’t be surprised at the end of the season when he can’t make shots if he plays 30 games of 34 or 35 minutes.
MC: The right amount for now. I think we will see him play these minutes for now while all of the younger guards gain more experience. He is the teacher and most experienced member of the backcourt, so they might need to rely on him for the little things as the team continues to gel. And Gbinije missed the first game and got in early foul trouble against Hampton so we will see more of him in due time.
MB: I’m O.K. with the minutes he’s getting. I actually thought Cooney played well on Sunday. He only made two of seven three-point tries, but one of them was a momentum-turner that put Syracuse up by eight and a couple of his misses very easily could have fell. I think he’s close to breaking out of his slump.
MM: Ug. By necessity Cooney is playing the right amount of minutes -- I'm not a believer in Bus Patterson. I think Cooney's ability and inability to hit from deep is overrated at this point, but against Hampton he got to the rim. We've seen Cooney do that in the past and he's been quite effective at it in limited attempts. You can't just sit a three-year player without filling that role and Syracuse doesn't have anyone to take over, so hopefully Cooney cuts back on the treys and looks to do more within the offense.
DL: I'd probably lean "too many" for now, but I don't expect him to be out there for 35 minutes a night. That is a bit skewed because Mike Gbinije missed the opener, which probably forced Cooney to play a bit more in that game. I hope that we see more Ron Patterson and B.J. Johnson, if only to mix up the looks we give other teams and keep Cooney fresh. I do expect him to be playing 28-30 minutes once we get into ACC play.
SK: The thing with a guy like Cooney is, you either don't play him at all or you let him loose. There's no in-between. Boeheim says in his book that he likes to have a shooter on the roster and he likes to feed that guy until he's hot. Boeheim continues to have faith that Cooney will get there. A lot of folks have lost that faith (including his teammates in the Dayton loss), but right now, let's see if Cooney can finally put it together, at least for a couple games in a row.
JC: He's not really taking a ton of three-pointers, so I'm a bit confused as to why he's out there this much. Take a look at his numbers and you see some underwhelming results given the high volume of minutes he's playing. Reduce those minutes by a few and toss one of our other promising young guards out there -- at least for now.
Compare your feelings about this team after Friday's win, versus Sunday's win.
BB: I thought SU looked fine on Friday and all right on Sunday. I’m encouraged, though, because I think the offense is doing things that lead to prolonged success. No, SU isn’t shooting great right now. The spacing looks good, the ball is moving around better and it’s going in and out of the post more than it did last season. The shots aren’t going in right now but I believe the shots SU is taking this year are of higher quality than ones last year.
MC: The same. They haven’t impressed me yet as a unit, although some individual play has. It is only two games and I bet Boeheim wasn’t trying to be too fancy in these games as they head into MSG against better opponents. We will get a better judgment of the team this weekend, they’re alright for now I guess.
MB: After Friday’s win, I felt this team had the potential to be really good. And I still feel that way. Sunday didn’t concern me all that much. The Orange played sloppy at times and missed a lot of shots they could’ve made, but that’s almost to be expected for a Sunday afternoon game of opening weekend.
MM: Meh. It's November and they're two rather forgettable opponents. Sure, Hampton has four starters back and a transfer from Tennessee, but ultimately, you can't get too worked up, one way or another, about a win in November against either of those teams.
DL: Not much changes, I try not too judge too quickly from games against teams like Kennesaw and Hampton. I think Hampton came out with a very strong gameplan and far more knowledge of how to attack the zone than most mid-majors we see, so credit them for that. Syracuse is also extremely young, so there will be growing pains. Some nights I expect SU to blow the doors off of teams but there will be plenty of others where SU needs to scrape out a win like it did on Sunday.
SK: The Friday win felt a little too good to be true and Sunday's win is much better for them anyway. This is a team that needs to be tested and pushed. So by all means, let's play a close game with Hampton in November because that's only going to help in February.
JC: Friday seemed to offer an exciting glimpse into a team that could both score AND play defense. Sunday gave us a glimpse of what we're much more likely to see (and what we saw in the first half against Kennesaw State, too). It's not a good feeling to see the team fail to score at a high volume, but for now, we'll just have to accept that's what we're dealing with until a next-level scorer reveals himself.
Early thoughts on how SU matches up with Cal on Thursday night?
BB: I think Cal could be a tough match up for SU with the offense that it brings right now. I don’t see Cal scoring 90 points, though, as the zone kills offensive schemes as well as the normal pace. Like most teams, Cal will take its time against the zone and eat up clock. SU probably wins, but this will be a good test to see how the zone does against a strong offense. Especially since Johnson, Roberson and McCullough have looked a little lost in it at some points.
MC: I think fairly well. The Golden Bears’ offense has been scorching so far in two games, shooting 55 percent from the field and 47 from beyond the arc. The Orange haven’t seen an offense like that and Cal hasn’t seen a defense like the Orange yet, so we will have to wait and see. What sticks out to me most is that Cal’s leading rebounder, Tyrone Wallace, is 6’5". If they have nobody to stop Rak on either side of the court, they will be in some trouble.
MB: I think Syracuse probably wins, but it won’t be easy. Cal’s topped 90 points in each of its first two games, so we know the Golden Bears can score. Sure, they played Kennesaw State and Alcorn State, but we didn’t come close to scoring that much against opponents of similar caliber.
MM: I can't wait to see how Syracuse matches up against any of the three other teams traveling to the Garden! Cal has Tyrone Wallace, who is averaging 20 points, 9 boards and over five assists per game. Texas has a seven-footer who seems to have game and Iowa, in my opinion, will contend for the Big Ten title this season. As far as Cal goes: while playing no one of importance so far, the Bears are averaging over 90 points in two games. Can SU, given its lack of experience and shot makers, actually keep pace with a team like that? This trip to NYC may result in a couple of Ls, but much can be gained even in defeat.
DL: I haven't had a chance to watch Cal yet, but they've been scoring a ton of points against similarly mediocre competition, and have been bombing teams from deep. Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, and Dwight Tarwater are each shooting over 60% from deep so far this year, and Cal as a team is over 47%. We'll almost definitely see some serious regression against SU because that is unsustainable, but if they shoot around 40% as a team from deep, Syracuse could have some problems. We should have a solid size advantage, so expect SU to go back to the well with Christmas and McCullough, and beat Cal that way. I think SU will win the game based on talent, but this match-up has consistently been a tricky one.
SK: Guess it all depends on how well Cal shoots from three-point range. We all know that can change the entire look of a game against the zone. It's going to be a great test for the young guys, especially defensively and extra-especially if Rak gets into foul trouble.
JC: Cal can shoot their way to a win against Syracuse from the perimeter if that's what they choose to do. But as the Bears and others have seen when facing the Orange, it's never that simple and you're never going to hit every three (even when you do, ask Wisconsin how that goes). Where Cal increases their chances is with ball movement and mid-range jumpers, which will likely decide the outcome on Thursday.