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Syracuse Basketball: Is Kaleb Joseph A Victim Of His Predecessors?

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The frosh has played inconsistently this season. But was it fair to expect anything else?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Kaleb Joseph looked overwhelmed at times during Saturday night's battle at the Carrier Dome between his Syracuse Orange and the Duke Blue Devils, a game he finished with four points, three assists, and two turnovers.

Especially in the contest's early stages, it seemed like the moment -- playing in front of 35,446 attendees and a nationally-televised audience -- might be too big for the freshman, who made a few ill-advised decisions in the first half, when he committed both of his turnovers and missed both of the shots he attempted.

But at other times, Joseph looked and played as if he belonged. With the Orange down 11 midway through the second half, he hit two mid-range jumpers in a three-minute span to help keep Syracuse within striking distance.

For those who follow the Orange, it's what we've come to expect of Joseph. One moment, he plays like he deserves to be the starting point guard for a blue blood college basketball program like Syracuse. The next moment, he reminds you why head coach Jim Boeheim often benches him in favor of Ron Patterson, who's a shooting guard shooting just 26.2 percent from the field this season.

And in some ways, Joseph is a perfect microcosm of the 2014-15 Syracuse Orange.

Over the course of the six seasons leading up to this one, the Orange set a standard for Syracuse basketball that you could argue the school hadn't seen before. In that span, which followed a trip to the NIT in 2008, Syracuse averaged 29.5 wins per season, was never worse than a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament, made the Sweet 16 four times, and even took a trip to the Final Four in 2013. SU fans grew accustomed to 30-plus win seasons and deep postseason runs, year in and year out.

It's hard to believe, but Syracuse hasn't been at the top of the college basketball mountain for all that long. In the four seasons prior to the 2008-09 campaign, the Orange never advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament and were twice relegated to the NIT. But those times are long forgotten by many Syracuse fans, who for the past half-decade knew nothing but dominance.

And then the 2014-15 season rolled around. After an offseason that saw both Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant leave early for the NBA (and C.J. Fair graduate), the Orange fielded a team that wasn't even among the ACC's best, let alone the country's.

Syracuse started the season ranked 23rd in both the AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll, and even that ranking quickly proved to be far too generous. Through 25 games, SU is 16-9 with the toughest stretch of its schedule still awaiting. Self-imposed postseason ban or not, the Orange were going to have a difficult time making the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

The sad truth with this team isn't that it hasn't reached expectations. Rather, it's that, relative to recent Syracuse teams, this one simply isn't that good. The roster has holes -- something that was the case even before Chris McCullough tore his ACL last month. There's really only one reason Orange fans might feel disappointed by the season's results: they've been spoiled for the past six years.

And much like great Syracuse teams have spoiled their fans and supporters, great point guards have done the same.

Here's a look at the SU point guards (and their statistics) over that six-year span:

  • Jonny Flynn (2008-09): .460 FG%/17.4 PPG/6.7 APG
  • Scoop Jardine (2009-12): .453 FG%/10.1 PPG/5.0 APG
  • Michael Carter-Williams (2012-13): .393 FG%/11.9 PPG/7.3 APG/5.0 RPG
  • Tyler Ennis (2013-14): .411 FG%/12.9 PPG/5.5 APG

Those are good numbers put forth by even better point guards. Three of them -- Carter-Williams, Ennis, and Flynn -- were even selected in the first round of their respective NBA Drafts.

Coming into this season, few expected that Joseph would immediately reach the level that those players reached early in their collegiate careers. After all, Syracuse recruited him to play a backup role to Ennis, whom many envisioned would return for his sophomore season.

Still, excellence and SU point guards have become so synonymous that frustration with Joseph and his play has been the only natural reaction from much of the Syracuse fanbase. And if you don't think that's true, a quick Twitter search of "Kaleb Joseph bad" -- or anything similar to that -- might sway you in the other direction.

And, granted, Joseph has struggled. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.69-to-1, ranking him 184th among eligible NCAA Division I players in that department. In 25 games, he's committed 64 turnovers -- or 10 more than Ennis committed in 34 games last season. He's also averaging just 6.9 points per game and is shooting 40.8 percent from the field.

Making matters worse, he's experienced issues on both sides of the ball. To this point, he still appears uncomfortable in the 2-3 zone and often fails to make the necessary rotations, something Boeheim expressed particular disappointment over following a win against Virginia Tech on February 3.

"In the second half, Kaleb didn't rotate four times and they made four corner jump shots," Boeheim said. "And, you know, he's a freshman, but at this stage of the year, you're either going to make that rotation or you're not learning. You're not doing what you need to do."

Of course, it hasn't been all bad for the point guard. He's had his moments. He had 10 assists and three steals in a loss at Villanova on December 20. At Boston College last week, he went a perfect 7-of-7 from the field, scored 14 points, and had four assists.

Unfortunately, Joseph has matched performances like those two with performances on the opposite end of spectrum. Against Louisiana Tech on December 14, he turned the ball over eight times. Against North Carolina on January 26, he had more turnovers (five) than he did points (four).

Nobody has been more vocal about Joseph's inconsistencies than has Boeheim, who said in January that the point guard "makes a really good play and then he makes a horrendous play" to describe his up-and-down tendencies. He reiterated that point on Saturday, albeit in milder terms.

"Kaleb makes some good plays and he makes some freshman mistakes that we can't afford," the coach said. "We have a 10 point lead and he makes a bad turnover. We could have had a layup and then they get one. But those things happen."

To his credit, Joseph seems to be handling this season and his erratic play with a maturity that most college freshmen don't have.

"It's basketball," he said after the Duke game. "I didn't miss a shot at Boston College. That doesn't really happen very often."

For Joseph, it all comes back to this: in a perfect world, one in which Syracuse were a deeper team, he wouldn't have to shoulder the responsibility that he's had to shoulder this season. He's not Tyler Ennis. He's not Michael Carter-Williams. He's not Scoop Jardine. He's not Jonny Flynn. Not yet, at least.

In a sense, much of this is unfair to Joseph. It's not his fault that Syracuse has been blessed with first-rate point guards since 2008, and it's not his fault that Boeheim was forced to thrust him into a role that he might not have been completely ready for.

Joseph will get better. There's no doubting that. Like any player, he's going to develop. Carter-Williams played only 10 minutes per game as a freshman before breaking out as a sophomore. Two of Joseph's teammates -- junior Michael Gbinije and senior Rakeem Christmas -- needed until this season to reach their potential.

In those games at Villanova and at Boston College, Joseph showed what he's capable of. My guess: we'll see far more of that Kaleb Joseph in 2015-16 than the one we saw for the stretches of Saturday night in which he struggled.

For now, it's important to stay patient.