Welcome back from the Super Bowl. If you’re lucky, perhaps you completely forgot this in a drunken stupor on Sunday, but it’s worth reminding you of the following:
The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team lost to Clemson, 78-61, in game that wasn’t really all that close. SU scored 19 points in the first half, while endorsing an inefficient offensive approach and questionable defensive execution. Despite the Tigers’ recent issues and potential matchup problem against the Orange, it didn’t much matter. Clemson won big, while SU lost resoundingly as already slim NCAA Tournament hopes continue to dwindle.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s put this into context.
This entire college basketball season has been an ill-conceived idea that failed to improve upon college football’s already ill-conceived idea. Despite various COVID-related issues plaguing football’s schedule and cases only ramping up as the hoops season started, the powers that be forged ahead. Countless games have been cancelled, teams have paused for weeks on end, missed players, basically don’t even have to pretend these “student-athletes” are just like other students anymore. Not many programs were set up to succeed in this environment.
Syracuse, as one might have guessed, has been among those predisposed to struggling — and then living up to that potential over the course of the 16 games we’ve witnessed thus far.
And yet, even acknowledging the grains of salt present here (and there are many), it’s inescapable to look at this season as a complete anomaly for the Orange, right?
Syracuse is 10-6 this season and seems well on their way to another double-digit loss year (yes, even with fewer than the normal number of games). It’ll be the 20th season in which the Orange men’s basketball team has lost 10 or more games... but also the seventh consecutive year it’s occurred, and eighth time in nine seasons.
“But they also made two Final Fours in there,” you say, incredulously. And yes, you’re very much correct there. I’d argue the 2013 team was excellent despite what seems like a higher number of losses. And we all know that regardless of the love we have for the 2016 run, that was a fluke. A fun fluke, of course. But a fluke nonetheless. We can enjoy everything that postseason was while also acknowledging that it conveniently helps cover up some reoccurring flaws for this program.
Those flaws haven’t been in hiding, yet were perhaps most apparent in the Saturday loss to Clemson.
During a season without much of a true center — especially once Bourama Sidibe was out — this was an opportunity to try out something other than the zone. I’m not anti-zone in general, and I don’t think the rest of the TNIAAM staff is either. Yet, without the proper players for the scheme this year — and those limitations are not limited to the center position — trying to plug a square peg into a round hole has clearly brought disastrous returns at times.
Even if you don’t mess with the defense, however, there are major questions around the offense, too. People got prickly toward the “lunchtime YMCA players” comment earlier this month about Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard in part because it’s rooted in some truth. That’s not even an insult. It’s to say that they’re streaky outside shooters with three-star talent, and relying heavily on them as a team’s primary scorers is a risky proposition in the ACC. It’s even riskier when considering the other when considering the fact that Syracuse continues to operate as a perimeter shooting team when percentages (they’re 263rd in the country from outside) would seem to indicate otherwise.
There’s also the depth issue. This isn’t new, but it comes to the forefront more and more each season. When your squad’s loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans and/or top-100 players, building and utilizing depth is less of a concern. But when it’s slim on top-tier talent — as this team and several recent Orange squads have been — a failure to play more than six or seven guys for meaningful minutes has real consequences both in the long- and short-term.
In the short, avoiding giving minutes to Woody Newton, Jesse Edwards and until recently Kadary Richmond fails to evaluate all options. In the long-term, it fails to give young players burn that both signals to them and others they can work they up within the program, and get valuable experience for future seasons. Syracuse always loses a player or two in the offseason, so having experienced guys to plug in is crucial. Also, for any program in today’s game, there needs to be an understanding that players want the quickest path to playing time. Failing to give more than seven players real minutes in a blowout fails to do anything positive for Syracuse.
All of this is to discuss what’s gone wrong this year, and contextualize within recent Orange seasons. The reason this wasn’t Syracuse’s season was because there are foundational issues making that the case both right now, and for the last few years. This year’s results could be the worst-case scenario, but it’s harder to feel that way when what’s gone wrong for 2020-21 looks a lot like what’s gone wrong for several years on end.
We’re not saying that Jim Boeheim should be fired, or can’t coach anymore, or can’t recruit anymore, or simply can’t fix the issues. But the program he’s in charge of is displaying some major signs of wear — the sort that needs to be addressed quickly, before the bottom falls out (be it while Jim’s still around or after he steps aside in the future).
The sanctions were a factor. The conference change was a factor. Changing recruiting dynamics have been part of this, along with seismic shifts around the sport that are rewarding flexibility and a player-first mentality that the current regime at Syracuse may not be capable of embracing to the extent needed.
Rather than hammer Boeheim for all of this, I think the first step is to address what needs to adjust ASAP. He’s clearly a Hall of Fame coach for a reason (several, actually), and certainly sees what’s going on both within his own program and around the country. However, seeing these things is just part of the solution. Proactively making the shifts becomes a much larger lift that’s tougher to handle quickly or alone.
I don’t have every solution for what Syracuse and Boeheim need to do in order to get out of the current rut. Perhaps it’s as simple as playing more guys and continuing to do what’s needed to get more guys on campus like 5-star 2021 forward Benny Williams. But considering how few and far between recruiting wins like Williams have been of late (at least in terms of players getting to campus), there are no guarantees that’s an easy fix either.
Even if this wasn’t Syracuse’s year — and you could argue it was never going to be — there are ways it could be again soon. What “our year” means going forward is questionable, and depends on your perspective. At a baseline, though, that should probably mean making the NCAA Tournament.