Oof. That’s the only word I can think of to sum up the Syracuse Orange’s loss to Oklahoma State. That was a difficult game to watch.
The most shocking thing, aside from the overwhelmingly obvious gap in physicality, was how many wide open shots Syracuse missed. I counted at least five layups, three or four mid-range jumpers, and at least ten three-pointers where we had 2-3 feet of separation from a defender, yet couldn’t convert. It was baffling, and I can only chalk it up to youth and nerves.
The one positive takeaway from the game is that Elijah Hughes is the real deal. He can seemingly score against anyone, and if not for severe foul trouble the entire game, he could have gone off for 35 or 40 and possibly won the game single-handedly.
But alas, the reality is that he’s only one man, and a team can’t win with their star in foul trouble while the rest of the team is ice cold. The entire Syracuse basketball team got outhustled, outplayed, and outsmarted by a veteran team that took full advantage of their strengths: athleticism and aggressive defense.
It doesn’t get any easier from here. Now we face Penn State, a team that creamed Georgetown at Georgetown, and had a 21 point lead over Ole Miss in the second half, only to collapse in epic fashion. You’ve got to imagine they are angry and looking for redemption against the ‘Cuse.
So let’s talk about the five things to watch for against the Penn State Nittany Lions:
1. Dumb Fouls
I can’t count the number of really silly fouls committed by the Orange in the loss to OKSU. Elijah had at least two, including his fourth which was simply jaw-dropping in how silly it was.
The same for Sibibe, who had at least two fouls where he simply got pushed around by a defender. He has a tough time holding his ground and it usually leads to him getting bumped at awkward positions, leading to the inevitable whistle, even if there wasn’t much contact.
Unfortunately, I don’t know that he will ever be the rim protector Syracuse basketball desperately needs. He has, however, greatly improved his footwork and he looks much faster. He’s actually a solid defender if he can avoid foul trouble, but that has proven difficult for him his entire career.
And don’t even get me started on Marek. I love his tenacity, but my goodness does he commit some boneheaded fouls.
This year’s team is too thin to get into heavy foul trouble again. Hopefully they’ve learned their lesson and will stop the silly reaches, bumps, and over the backs against Penn State.
2. Transition and unsettled defensive situations
Syracuse basketball’s transition defense was painful to watch against OKSU. Isaac Likelele did whatever he wanted to in the open court with absolutely zero resistance from our squad. That has got to be one of the worst transition defense game I’ve watched in my 30+ years of fandom.
I’m sure Boeheim had an earful for the team after that debacle, and rightfully so. The entire team needs to be sprinting back in those situations, because even if the initial break didn’t work for Oklahoma State, they almost always were able to find a great shot on the secondary break.
The zone needs time to set up, which is why it’s essential that everyone get back fast. If the transition defense is that bad against Penn State again, you can pretty much chalk up another loss.
This goes right in tandem with the awful transition defense. Syracuse coughed it up 17 times against Oklahoma State. Many of those were a direct result of the aggressive man-to-man pressure defense the Cowboys played all game.
It certainly rattled Joe Girard early, who committed three turnovers within the first four minutes of the game. Thankfully, Joe settled down and actually had himself a very good game, even in spite of his poor shooting (12 points, 9 assists, 2 rebounds, 3 steals).
But it wasn’t just Joe that was turning it over at a high rate. All of our starters had at least two turnovers, and our basic seven man rotation (Joe Girard, Buddy Boeheim, Elijah Hughes, Marek Dolezaj, Bourama Sidibe, Quincy Guerrier, Brycen Goodine) accounted for every single Syracuse basketball turnover.
This team needs to fire on all cylinders to hang with the upper echelon of college basketball. Much like the previous point on transition defense, if we give up that many turnovers against Penn State, we will lose.
4. Defensive rebounding
The Orange gave up 11 offensive rebounds to Oklahoma State. That doesn’t sound bad, but it means that our defensive rebounding rate was right around 63%. That’s not good. In fact, it’s really bad.
According to Team Rankings, Wake Forest is first in the nation in that category at 86% defensive rebound rate. A rate of 63% would be good for 347th in the NCAA. That’s the 7th worst percentage in the nation.
Syracuse basketball has never been predicated on defensive rebounding. There have been plenty of seasons where we’ve been a middling or worse defensive rebounding team. But if we give up nearly 40% second chance opportunities every game, we won’t win many.
Boeheim is famous (or maybe infamous) for saying you don’t box out in a zone, but that’s a patently false statement and goes against the fundamentals of basketball. Everybody needs to box out. If the players do, we can be very good. If they don’t, expect to get abused in the ACC against the UNC’s and Wake Forest’s of the world.
5. Elijah Plus Four
If this team wants to be successful this year, we need some scorers to step up aside from Elijah. Against the Cowboys, it looked like he was the only one who had any idea of how to put the ball in the basket.
As soon as he went out of the game with foul trouble, our offense completely stalled. Is it any wonder why the Cowboys went on a 17-5 run to end the half when Elijah picked up his third? This team is Elijah’s, but we need other consistent scorers to emerge.
We can’t afford to go through the lulls of a 2-for-15 three-point shooting night from our starting backcourt. We need Joe Girard and Buddy Boeheim to find other ways to score. We need Marek Dolezaj to be consistently aggressive and attack the hoop. We need more low post opportunities for Bourama Sidibe.
Basically, we need backup plans for when our shooters are cold, which absolutely will happen again. We can beat anyone in the country when our shooters are on, but when they are off, who picks up the slack?
Perhaps we’ll find out against Penn State.