Those emotions are valid, especially when you consider the critical stretch the Syracuse men’s basketball team (10-4, 1-2) finds itself in with the early portion of its ACC schedule. Despite a pretty decent non-conference run and a recent win against a solid Pittsburgh team prior to the Duke loss, the Orange are still stuck in the same situation as they’ve been in all season — no bad losses, but also no great wins either.
We’re approaching the halfway mark of the 2023-2024 season with 14 games down and 17 to go for Syracuse. Clearly, this team has some defined strengths but also some notable weaknesses that will make the rough tough over the course of the next month.
What can Adrian Autry do fix some of those issues? Let’s describe those on-court problems and get to problem-solving.
Spacing was one of the main issues Autry highlighted in the postgame press conference following the Orange’s loss at Cameron Indoor. This team is really lacking consistent perimeter shooting, which leads to the offense bogging down when Judah Mintz, J.J. Starling and the Orange’s other slashers are forced to drive into a clogged paint.
Through 14 games, only three players (Mintz, Chris Bell and Kyle Cuffe Jr.) are shooting at least 35% of better from three on sufficient volume (Maliq Brown is at 40% but has taken five three-pointers all season). Mintz is at a 36% clip from three but he’s only taking three a game, while Cuffe Jr. is at 37% but on less than two attempts per game.
Bell (35%, 85 total attempts) is clearly the Orange’s best shooter, but he isn’t always the most reliable and has really tailed off since the beginning of the season (Bell hasn’t cracked 10 points since his 19-point effort versus Cornell). At the same time, his shooting is also essential since no one else on the Orange is a legit three-point shooter.
Both he and Justin Taylor (33% from three on 60 total attempts) have both struggled over the last month as our own James Szuba most recently noted. Ditto for Naheem McLeod, who against Duke and throughout the season has really been a non-factor on offense. Should Autry look to switch things up and change the starting lineup?
Well... yes and no.
For starters, it’s hard to take Bell out of the starting lineup. Outside of Benny Williams, he’s the closest thing Syracuse has to a capable small forward that can provide spacing on offense and size on defense (even if it’s inconsistent).
While Bell should stay, I think it might be time for Taylor to be replaced by someone else. Maybe giving Williams the starting nod could a) put Taylor in a more comfortable microwave/spark plug role off the bench and b) give Autry a blend of more size/athleticism on defense. In other words, Taylor’s ceiling is only good as his shooting and that just hasn’t been elite enough to justify keeping him in his current role (even if he has exceeded expectations as a rebounder).
The other tough question: what do you do with McLeod? The “Brown at the five” lineups are clearly a major plus for this team, especially after a career-night for Maliq against Duke. Should Brown just start over McLeod?
I’m going to zag against the majority and say no — here’s why. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who starts as much as who closes. To begin the second half in the Duke game, McLeod was a called for a quick foul and Brown was back on the court less than 15 seconds into the half. Brown pretty much played the rest of the way.
The Brown at the five lineups is a wildcard in Autry’s back pocket, and that element of surprise (I would argue) is what makes it so effective especially when you have the Mintz-Starling-Copeland-Williams-Brown lineup at full stream. McLeod will still have his value at times, as he has shown with his shot-blocking around the rim and occasional energy on defensive.
Rebounding will still be a concern no matter the lineup, but Autry can still tap into this team’s current strengths (speed, multiple ball-handlers) to push the pace and get out in transition.
One final note — the x-factor for this team still remains Starling. He only took nine shots against Duke, and to be honest, he disappeared at times despite being Syracuse’s third-best scorer versus the Blue Devils. I don’t know how specifically, but he has to get the ball more in his hands. He’s a great mid-range shooter and he can certainly attack the basket at will, but the volume is still too low. Copeland is a great spark plug and will have his moments off the bench (including an ACC Player of the Week explosion versus Pitt), but it’s still unproven if that is sustainable.
As always, let’s not push the detonate button just yet. Again, this team hasn’t lost to anyone bad — all four defeats have been to ranked teams. Cameron Indoor is unforgiving, even with most of the students on hiatus. Believe it or not, there is still more than 50% of the season left to go.
That means there is still plenty of time for Autry to adjust.