At 8-4 overall, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball enters its one-week holiday break from the schedule with plenty of improving to do.
St. Bonaventure closes out the non-conference schedule on Dec. 29, and ACC play begins on Jan. 5 against Notre Dame. While Saturday’s second-half blowout of Arkansas State was a step in the right direction after back-to-back losses to Old Dominion and Buffalo, the nine Orange rotation players have all shown facets of their games in need of improvement (some more major than others). Even if only a few of these individual inefficiencies begin to be solved, which is very likely to happen, Syracuse should perform better in conference play and get closer to being the team that we expected at the beginning of the year, and perhaps start the new year on a fresher note.
Frank Howard: A Return to Full Explosiveness
After missing the first four games of the season due to an ankle injury sustained in September and subsequent surgery, Frank Howard is gradually regaining his aggressiveness on the court. Jim Boeheim has noted in post-game pressers over the past few weeks that Howard is still behind where he needs to be physically. This has been evident on the court, as Howard has been hesitant to drive to the hoop (a strength of his last year), and his field-goal and three-point percentages currently sit at 28.6 and 23.7 percent, respectively. With ACC play looming, Syracuse needs its senior point guard to return to his summer form, in which he was hitting 90 percent of open three-pointers, jumping a 38-inch vertical, and garnering praise from Boeheim.
Tyus Battle: Better Consistency
Tyus Battle returning to Syracuse instead of entering the NBA Draft was a gift for Syracuse fans, and despite showing an improved offensive efficiency so far this season (39.9 field-goal percentage last year vs. 45.3 percent this year) the junior guard has had some clear off nights. In Syracuse’s seven wins this season, Battle is shooting 48 of 99 from the field (48.5 percent) and 11 of 28 (39.3 percent) from three-point range.
But in losses, Battle is shooting 20 of 51 (39.2 percent) from the field and 4 of 19 from three (21 percent). Although his two worst scoring and field-goal percentage outputs this season have come in wins (8 points on 3 of 10 shooting against Eastern Washington, and 2 points on 1 of 7 shooting against Northeastern), they were in blowout wins where Battle wasn’t relied on as heavily. Against stiffer competition, however, a more inefficient game by Battle has typically led to a poor showing by Syracuse. The Orange have options other than Battle, but in order to succeed they must ensure their best player can get going.
Elijah Hughes: Fewer Turnovers
Hughes has been rather steady this season as the team’s top three-point shooter, hitting double-digits in all but two games. But, he is also the team leader in turnovers per game with 2.2, and although Jalen Carey, at second, would be higher if he played the same minutes, this is concerning because Hughes is not one of the Orange’s primary ball handlers. Twice this season, he has turned the ball over six times in a game (against Oregon and Buffalo), and both resulted in losses. Less turnovers will lead to less fast breaks and points against the Orange defense, which is when the 2-3 zone is most vulnerable.
Oshae Brissett: Improve Field Goal Percentage
Among Syracuse’s nine regular rotation players at this point in the season, Oshae Brissett has the third-lowest field-goal percentage at 38.5 percent — behind only Howard (28.6 percent), whose reason is explained above, and Boeheim (22.2 percent). Albeit an improvement over last season’s 35.4 percent, both Brissett’s three-point and free-throw percentages have dipped significantly, and excluding Howard, he is the only Orange player shooting under 40 percent from the field. Even worse, the sophomore forward is 13 of 50 (26 percent) on shots in SU’s four losses. If Syracuse is to improve its offensive efficiency, one could say it starts with Brissett.
Also, what’s with all the missed dunks?
Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe: Better Offensive & Defensive Presences
Syracuse’s two actual centers are grouped together here, as the biggest issue for each has been an overwhelming lack of offensive production.
Chukwu started the season well, scoring 26 points in his first three games while making 7 of 10 shots along with 10 blocks, but he has since been held scoreless in half of the last eight games. A 65.2 percent field-goal percentage (15 of 23 shots) on the season, however, suggests that there is hope. For Sidibe, it’s unclear whether the tendinitis he suffered in his left knee last season that resulted in offseason surgery is still impacting his play. So far, Sidibe hasn’t flashed much intensity. His minutes per game, blocks, rebounds, and free-throw percentage haven’t changed much since last season, but his field-goal percentage has dropped from 59.6 percent to 54.5 percent.
Sidibe’s 18-point (on 6 of eight shooting), 16-rebound, and three-block effort at Pittsburgh last season serves as a reminder of the potential the sophomore center has. Hopefully he’ll reach or come close to it the remained of this season.
On top of offensive struggles, both Chukwu and Sidibe have shown to be less effective on defense this season, prompting the question of whether Dolezaj should get even more playing time at center given his offensive capabilities.
Jalen Carey: Get the Jump-Shots Falling, and Keep the Ball Moving
Jalen Carey has provided what Syracuse lacked during the end of last season: a backup point guard. Not only that, but Carey has established himself as an offensive threat with his ability to run the court and drive to the hoop, and has remained steady on defense at the top of the zone. What’s missing right now is a consistent jump shot, and a better ability to orchestrate the offense (which will come with time).
Marek Dolezaj: More Minutes
Given his emergence in the second-half of last season, a minutes increase seemed reasonable. But with Hughes’ play and Brissett being locked in as a starter, Dolezaj has averaged just over 18 minutes as a sophomore, compared to about 28 as a freshman. Yet, Dolezaj’s field-goal percentage is up to 62.5 percent compared to 53.7 last year, and he’s a three-point threat now. Because of this, one would expect the Slovakian forward to be shooting at a higher rate, but that is not the case. Rather than taking more shots a game (despite less minutes), Dolezaj is taking 4.6 shots per 40 minutes this year, about one fewer than 5.7 in 2017-18.
Considering Chukwu and Sidibe’s poor play at the center position, and the fact that Dolezaj isn’t as much of a downgrade as expected in the middle of the zone, Syracuse’s offense would be boosted significantly if Dolezaj is given more run at center, as it would give the Orange a lineup of five players that all command substantial attention from the defense, Perhaps Dolezaj just plays better as a starter, allowing him to better get into the flow of the game.
Buddy Boeheim: Confidence
As of this point in the season, what Boeheim (who is anything but lacking in shooting ability) needs is a boost of confidence in his abilities, which could go a long way for Syracuse in the coming years, and perhaps this season if he is needed more heavily.
Oh, and as a team, could we please not go 5 of 13 from the free-throw line again this season like against Buffalo? Thanks.