The worst part is you saw Thursday night’s loss coming before it actually happened. Of course you did. You’d seen the exact same thing play out repeatedly for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team, and this time was no different. SU’s 2018-19 season was frustratingly static, unchanging and in the end, the last result — a 78-69 NCAA Tournament loss to Baylor — was befitting of all of that.
Syracuse, as you certainly know by now, rarely evolves.
That’s not meant as a dig on the Orange, their coach, the greater athletic department, school, city or its people. But it’s nonetheless true. It’s what makes all of those things interesting; curious, even. There are minor tweaks and added wrinkles over time. But what you see is what you get. There are minimal surprises and change isn’t necessarily met with open arms.
So when Syracuse once again found itself staring down a momentum shift in the second half and saw the game starting to get away a bit, it was in keeping with that tradition that very little was altered.
The Orange pressed, to some effect. But on the other end, the offense was as non-existent as it was all season. Opening up shooting well from three was a blessing and a curse. While it kept Syracuse in the game with Baylor despite the early barrage, it also made them a little reliant on it — something that showed while the game still hung in the balance.
They were 12-fo-29 from three against a team that had no player taller than 6-foot-9. They shot 18 free throws. SU only took 22 two-point shots all game. Against a team that was significantly smaller and had players nursing injuries. As those final jumpers all withered short of the net, be it from altitude or exhaustion or just good defense, it was apparent that the only game plan was the same thing it’s been all year.
Despite another season tallying up at least 14 losses (that’s four straight, by the way), the only thing Syracuse did in any late-game offensive situation was to do what it did for the entire season: Play isolation ball on the perimeter, see who gets a look from outside and/or give it to Tyus Battle. It didn’t work during Syracuse’s second-half slump on Thursday, nor did it vs. Virginia, Clemson, Duke (the two latter times), UNC, NC State, Florida State, Buffalo, Old Dominion, Oregon or UConn.
No, those games weren’t all identical, but they all featured inflection points where Syracuse had a shot to fight their way back in, and didn’t. There were exceptions to this, of course. But too many losses looked far too similar to be written off as independent events.
So when Baylor was up 62-57 with eight minutes left, you’d be excused for sensing that sinking feeling coming on. Same at 65-59, 68-62 and maybe for the most pessimistic among us, 68-65. It would get no closer because the Orange — largely a poor jump-shooting team — then relied completely on jumpshots. As it has before, the strategy failed, and the loss was wrapped up shortly thereafter.
You can’t peg an entire defeat or the entire season on the lack of an offensive system, either. I still buy into the zone and its abilities to flummox opponents come March, but it also needs to be active and/or to adjust. In this game, minus one of the team’s best defenders in Frank Howard, the zone spent large stretches immobile. When getting lit up from three, it didn’t extend out and players were caught out of position regularly. Again, not a unique occurrence this season as the zone’s struggled to adjust (at times) to an NBA-influenced reliance on the deep ball. Ask any of the other teams that had banner days from deep (including UVA’s insane shooting clinic just weeks ago).
The issue may not have even been the zone itself, but some potential exhaustion from the players being deployed in it. I don’t know, and none of us ever will. But in this game, like any other this season, the moves were never made to help alleviate that possible issue. Bourama Sidibe never saw the floor, nor did Robert Braswell. Jalen Carey (a point guard) played five minutes despite the starting point guard (Howard) not playing at all.
Jim Boeheim riding the top six rotation guys to the extent he did failed to surprise most of us, either, because well... that’s what Syracuse basketball does. And it has all year, while losing copious amounts of games in the process.
This isn’t to spite Jim, the program, the players or the zone. It’s just to point out that this team — with its frustrating highs and lows, and inability to change — seemed to epitomize things that we regularly try to fight back criticism on.
“Boeheim’s a curmudgeon that won’t change?” Yeah, he didn’t really adjust much this year, save in a few spots like the Duke win. “The zone is lazy?” Still don’t agree, but this was the second-worst Orange defense (30th, per KenPom) since 2009’s 39th-place finish. Without Howard on the floor it seemed obvious who was a good defender and who wasn’t. The zone, with a quality defender like Howard, shielded lesser players and we ended up with a lesser result.
All of this is also colored by the fresh bruises from a season over too soon. It’s the first time we can say as much since 2014 (the Dayton loss), and that in and of itself is a pretty interesting development for this fan base. Like I remarked when the Howard news broke on Wednesday, the surprising success lately had made us almost forget that the other shoe is usually sitting there waiting to drop. It did with Frank. And then it did in this game. But it was waiting there the whole time, if we’re honest with ourselves.
This isn’t the sort of post that’s supposed to inspire the fan base to burn the whole thing down. We’re better than that, and there are plenty more corners of the internet that are doing that exact thing as we speak.
But things can’t be immovable in any aspect of life — including when it comes to this team. The 2018-19 Orange were, the same story, repeatedly. Unfortunately, that gets tiring to read after awhile.