Mike Watkins decimated the Syracuse Orange interior for 11 offensive rebounds in Brooklyn to cap November. An 0-2 trip to Brooklyn and the Georgetown loss left men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim to reveal he had to remind Bourama Sidibe to jump for rebounds. Nearly three minutes after halftime the Orange stood tied with Penn State 35-35, only to lose by 21.
“We’re going to struggle,” Boeheim said. “It’s going to be a struggle every game.”
Fans heeded Boeheim’s warning, as did the team, unloading on hapless Georgia Tech only to get buried a week later in the second half by Georgetown. The Orange have lost to five top-50 teams by an average of 14.6 points per game, largely due to struggles late in games.
At 5-5, a historically poor start by the standards Boeheim built, only 16,394 (still an impressive crowd for nearly every other team in the country) showed up to watch SU play a 5-6 Oakland team. It took until late in the second half for SU to pull away with a double-digit victory — their sixth in as many tries this year. The Orange are young and thin, and while absurd fans and expectations exist, SU fans could at least rest hopes on optimism from the coach’s podium.
There’s been little of that. While much of it may be true, and Boeheim’s long criticized his own players as a motivational tactic, why would SU fans pour into the Dome to watch Oakland if the coach is telling them the Orange aren’t good enough?
The attendance and lack of noise provided by those who did show up to watch another grind of a game factored into Boeheim’s post-game monologue as significantly as Syracuse’s post defense. Yet the Orange still rank alongside Kentucky, averaging over 20,000 fans per game. In what could become Boeheim’s worst season as head coach, fans watched even through 34 points on opening night, Jalen Carey’s benching and injury, then dying NCAA Tournament hopes.
Forget the fact that wind chills fell below zero and snow continued to pile after disastrous conditions earlier in the day. Boeheim attributed poor defensive stretches on Wednesday, in part, to an unimpressed crowd. One that stood waiting over three minutes for a bucket to begin each half.
Fan support dwindles due to uninspiring play, results Boeheim highlighted himself on Wednesday. The Orange aren’t great, he said, so they have to avoid three-pointers by players that aren’t high percentage. Realistic? Yes. Inspiring confidence? No way.
The defense didn’t struggle because fans didn’t clap. The fans didn’t clap because the defense struggled. And it has all year, slipping to 60th in KenPom’s defensive rating after two consecutive seasons in the top-30. In five losses, SU allowed 75.4 points per game, including over 80 in three road contests where the offense scored.
Fans showed up through protests on campus, cheered relentlessly for Joseph Girard III’s emergence and the early moments of the Virginia game seeped with the optimism that Boeheim pushed preseason. As he shifted away from that — saying the team isn’t ready and stressing its lack of talent — what else should fans do but take his cue and tune out?
“I had to cheer, trying to get somebody to make some noise. It’s sad. Sickening really to see that, we can’t get some help here. We desperately need it,” Boeheim said. “That’s the whole purpose of playing at home, I’m a little too old to try and be the cheerleader here.”
It unfortunately became the story of a game that Syracuse actually finished both halves strong in. The Orange haven’t suffered a bad loss, something even Duke and North Carolina can’t say, but Boeheim has capped their potential several times.
The team’s too young to add too many wrinkles to the game plan. The five teams they’ve lost to are not ones that Syracuse should have beat. In the same breath he criticized the crowd with, Boeheim chalked the interior issues to Marek Dolezaj and Sidibe needing to gain 40 pounds. Boeheim admitted the team on the floor is one that he builds, but he’s also informed the fanbase that they’re is not capable of playing at a top-50 level.
So why should fans care? Especially about an Oakland game that drew even fewer (15,534) in 2017, underscoring how strange it is to emphasis the crowd in this specific matchup. Boeheim and SU later clarified his comments through his official Twitter account.
I have said many times that we have the best college basketball fans in the country and I still feel that way. My comments last night were about the atmosphere during parts of the game—not about our fans. Our team responds to their support, and did again against Oakland.— Jim Boeheim (@therealboeheim) December 19, 2019
Boeheim made the Basketball Hall of Fame by crafting a brutally consistent program that won more consistently than almost any other. A spotty 6-5 start isn’t a problem at Boston College, Miami or Wake Forest. Syracuse, given its history and the team’s stature in the city, expects more.
They’ve come to expect nothing less than the truth from Boeheim, who’s probably correct that this team isn’t talented or deep enough to excel at the highest level. But whose job is it to assemble a successful team, or build up what he has?
Dolezaj and Sidibe have largely been who they are through three seasons. No front court help is on the way in next season’s recruiting class. Maybe a bad season was due after over 40 years of competitive — and even great — ones.
College basketball is hard, and it’s growing harder with more competitive recruiting infrastructures emerging at Connecticut and Washington that have funneled talent that would’ve transformed this SU team away.
What worries this fanbase more than five losses is the trend. In play, in recruiting, in stature, in what’s next.