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Syracuse basketball: Death by a thousand cuts

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The slow, steady decline of Syracuse basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of one of the worst starts in 50+ years of Syracuse basketball, let’s take a look back to the “good old days”, shall we? Don’t worry, we’re not even going all that far.

The scene is February 12, 2014. CJ Fair, Tyler Ennis, Jerami Grant and company have just pulled off an improbable, come-from-behind, last second victory over Pittsburgh to remain undefeated and keep their #1 ranking in the country. Ennis is the hero, draining a near mid-court shot at the buzzer to move the Orange to an incredible 24-0 record, the best start ever for Syracuse basketball.

On the surface, things are great. The team keeps winning. We look dominant in the ACC, beating pesky Pitt twice, upending Duke in OT, and blitzing Villanova in the non-conference.

But if you look a little deeper, if you really probe in, you can start to see the cracks in the armor. Nine of Syracuse’s wins came by seven points or less. Nine times we failed to crack 70 points, and three times we failed to even hit 60. Even with blowout wins over early season cupcakes, Syracuse basketball was averaging just 67.8 points per game.

The style of Syracuse basketball changed that year. We went from an up-tempo, fast-breaking team to one that was slow, methodical, and limited possessions as much as possible. And to be fair, it was working.

Until it wasn’t.

After that Pittsburgh game, the Syracuse Orange would win just four more the entire season, including a first round exit in the ACC Tournament and second round exit in the NCAA Tournament... as a number three seed. We broke 70 points twice in remaining 10 games of the season.

That was the beginning of the downward spiral.

Since then, there have been some highs (the magical 2016 Final Four run and the almost as magical 2018 Sweet 16), but a lot more lows.

So what happened to Syracuse basketball that got us to where we are today?

Well, a number of things really. Obviously I already talked about the change in offensive philosophy. There was a truly jaw-dropping statistic that the announcers mentioned during the Iowa game. From 1964 to 2013, Syracuse basketball never averaged less than 70 points per game in a season. Not once.

We’ve averaged less than 70 in four out of the six seasons since. So far this year, we’re averaging 69 points per game, and we haven’t even entered ACC play. Against P5 competition, we’ve scored 34, 54, 64, and 72 points. I don’t think this trend will change much as the year goes on.

But it’s not just the offensive philosophy that is responsible for the slow and steady decline over the past five years. As much as you probably don’t want to hear it, sanctions have played a huge role.

And again, it all started in that 2014 season. Actually, before that season even started. We brought in a five-man recruiting class that year, not having a clue that by the end of next season, we’d lose three scholarships to sanctions and be handcuffed with a roster that had too many projects and not enough elite playmakers.

That five-man class included Tyler Ennis, B.J. Johnson, Ron Patterson, Chinonso Obokoh, and Tyler Roberson. Three of those five ended up transferring, and it was a direct result of the sanctions not allowing us the time to “bank” guys for a year or two and let them develop. It’s unfortunate, as Johnson turned into an outstanding player that could have helped the team immensely for two more years.

Recruiting with the sanctions proved to be a major challenge for Syracuse basketball as well. Not only did we lose three scholarships (reduced to two on appeal), but we also lost two of our coaches being on the recruiting trail during the open periods. That is a significant loss. While other teams were able to scour the country and make lasting connections with recruits, Syracuse was limited to a very select pool of athletes.

Even guys that we really wanted and could have gotten, like Kevin Huerter, we didn’t offer because of the reduction. This, combined with outright recruiting misses (Quade Green, Isaiah Stewart, Isaiah Jackson), players that didn’t live up to expectations (Kaleb Joseph, Tyler Roberson, Matthew Moyer, Geno Thorpe), players that left because their mommy made them (Taurean Thompson), and injuries (Chris McCullough, Frank Howard) combined to make life difficult for Syracuse basketball.

And yet, that’s still not the only problem that led to Syracuse’s current situation. We’ve also had a number of players leave early, before they were expected to. In fact, that’s precisely why we didn’t offer Kevin Huerter. We were expecting at least one of Tyler Ennis or Jerami Grant to come back. Neither did.

Chris McCullough left after playing less than half a season. Malachi Richardson left after one good run in the NCAA tournament. Tyler Lydon left after only two years. So did Oshae Brissett. Even Tyus Battle, who looked like a hero for coming back for his junior year, left with eligibility remaining. And of course, let’s not forget Darius Bazeley, who never even made it onto campus.

Before anyone says it, yes, this happens to many teams in college basketball. But when you combine it with a limited roster and some recruiting duds and misses, it just exacerbates the situation.

And yet, this still doesn’t encompass all of SU’s problems. Aside from the recruiting whiffs and duds, the guys we have gotten recently haven’t developed the way past Syracuse basketball players have. Last year was a perfect example. Oshae Brissett regressed in pretty much every conceivable way. Tyus Battle was the same player but with a worse outside shot and a hitch that was never corrected. Paschal Chukwu, while still a defensive presence, was an absolute liability on offense. Marek Dolezaj was the exact same player he was as a freshman.

Going further back, guys like Tyler Lydon and Tyler Roberson didn’t look any different from one season to the next. And then there’s the guys who came in with huge potential, only to do nothing with it. Kaleb Joseph’s trial by fire as a freshman turned him into a shell-shocked ghost on the court. Jalen Carey lost his starting role to Joe Girard, and while injury played a factor there, he looked flat out lost on the court. Buddy Boeheim, for all his shooting prowess, has turned into a chucker and a defensive liability.

We just haven’t seen the kind of player development we used to see. We don’t have the Rakeem Christmas, who goes from solid defensive 6th man to dominant scorer. Or Michael Gbinije, who went from a 3 and D small forward into an incredibly effective point guard who could score at all three levels. Or even further back, guys like Hakeem Warrick, Andy Rautins, Preston Shumpert, Todd Burgan, and the countless others that went from small time role players to offensive and defensive juggernauts during their time on the hill.

And yet, that still doesn’t sum up the problems this team has faced in the past half-decade. Are you seeing a pattern here?

We haven’t even talked about the departure of Mike Hopkins yet. When Jim Boeheim got his nine-game ban in 2013, no one really knew what to expect with Hopkins. A 4-5 record only left more questions, and many fans wrote him off as “not ready”.

Fast forward to 2019. Washington has had back-to-back winning seasons, a regular season conference championship, and two straight coach of the year awards for Mike Hopkins. He’s also pulled in five-star talent in Quade Green, Isaiah Jackson, and Jaden McDaniels. That’s three more five star players than Syracuse basketball has had in the past three years. Two of those were top Syracuse targets.

Hopkins looks to be everything we had hoped he’d be for Syracuse once Jim Boeheim retired. And while it’s still possible that he returns to his alma mater when Boeheim finally does step down, it’s incredibly unlikely.

Mike has family on the West Coast, including his father who has dementia. He’s already worshipped by the Washington fanbase and has completely transformed their program in just over two years. Why would he come back, especially if Syracuse basketball continues to slide? The reality is, he probably won’t.

So what comes next for Syracuse basketball? Is it even possible to salvage this season, and if so, what about next year? We’re still not bringing in a center who can lock down the middle. We’re still lacking major athleticism in our backcourt. Kadary Richmond, assuming he qualifies to play college ball, will help in the backcourt. Woody Newton will help us at forward, especially if Elijah Hughes departs for a pro career.

But without a big man who can dominate the interior and provide a low post scoring option, we’re in basically the same boat as this year. And if Elijah does turn pro, who will possibly fill that scoring and playmaking void next year? Buddy Boeheim? Joe Girard? Quincy Guerrier? From what we’ve seen so far, that doesn’t seem likely.

The scary question we are now facing is, will Syracuse basketball ever truly get back to the glory days, or do we continue to slide into mediocrity, or worse? I want to see us get back to the days where we were an offense-first team that focused on outscoring the opposition, and relied on elite athletes that knew how to put the ball in the hoop from anywhere on the court.

I vividly remember the 2010 team with Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson, where getting them the ball on the block was pretty much a guaranteed bucket. Or the Wes Johnson team that could score from every conceivable spot on the floor. Or even teams from the 80s and 90s that were physical, aggressive, and unafraid to bang with the big boys.

I realize that I’m painting a fairly bleak future for Syracuse basketball, but I’d like to end on a high note by saying not all is lost. We’ve been in similar situations before, and the team has responded. Just three seasons ago, Syracuse basketball was 8-6 by January 1, including the worst loss in Carrier Dome history, a 33-point blowout to St. John’s. They also lost to a bad UConn team, a bad Georgetown team, and a bad Boston College team in that span.

That team ended up going 19-15, beat top-10 Duke, Virginia, and Florida State, and just narrowly missed the NCAA tournament. So there is still hope for the season not being a complete disaster.

Taking it even further, SU could very easily change its future fortunes with one or two recruiting commits. We are in the mix for several big men in next year’s class, and there is always the chance that we can snag a solid center from the transfer portal.

So no, not all hope is lost. But the reality is, Syracuse has been dying a slow death by a thousand cuts. And until we can stop the bleeding and right the ship, the future remains very murky.