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Is Syracuse Basketball Ready To Overcome Another Controversy?

With senior forward James Southerland, a key leader on the No. 7-ranked team in the nation, ineligible for an unknown amount of time, this question now looms: Can this Syracuse squad overcome a controversy like last year's team did?

Nate Shron

It was nearly four months ago when I was able to have a quick one-on-one conversation with James Southerland.

It was at the 2012 Big East Conference media day, inside the beautiful New York Athletic Club located on Central Park South.

After fielding questions about his new leadership role as a senior, the future emergence of point guard Michael Carter-Williams and what we could expect from the incoming freshmen; James turned his attention to me as I asked him if he felt good to have a fresh start after going through such a roller coaster-like season.

He nodded yes and answered, "You're always going to face controversy we're just ready for everything. We just got to keep the outside issues outside."

Sixteen games into his last season as an Orange, the 6-foot-8 forward emerged from Syracuse's home locker room, about 20 minutes before Saturday's tip-off against visiting Villanova, in casual clothing. He shook hands with coaches and teammates, sat down on the bench and watched for just over two hours his team grind its way to a 72-61 victory.

Southerland, the second-leading scorer on the nation's No. 7-ranked team, wasn't on the floor during the win but he was the day's biggest story, as a little under an hour before the start of the Big East Conference contest he was ruled "ineligible until further notice" by the university.

I am sure Southerland hadn't planned this ironic moment, but he was now the "outside issue" that he and the rest of the Orange wanted to avoid this season.

How could this happen? Will and when is this issue going to be resolved? (Especially, since match-ups with possibly the No. 1-ranked Louisville Cardinals and Cincinnati Bearcats are looming.)

Those are the common questions going to be asked from now until we find out if Southerland's official status for the rest of the season.

And if this scenario is anything like what Syracuse had to go through with Fab Melo, who last season was ruled ineligible before a road loss at Notre Dame, Jan. 21 (five days after the first day of Spring classes), this will not be pretty.

Unlike last season, however, there will be questions centering around whether or not Syracuse, a Final Four contender, can overcome the loss of a senior leader.

Most will assume the Orange can.

See, since starting the season like a house on fire, averaging 19.2 points per game and shooting 62-percent, including 60-percent from behind the 3-point line, during the first five games of the season, Southerland has been very streaky.

In his last 11 games, one of the conference's frontrunners to win the Sixth Man of the Year Award was shooting just 27-percent from behind the 3-point line. There had been four games he didn't make a 3-pointer and four games, including last Wednesday's win over Providence - the last game he played in - he made just one.

Saturday's victory over 'Nova proved if SU's freshmen, including shooting guard Trevor Cooney, who made two critical second-half 3-pointer to help propel the Orange to victory, play up to their potential this team could be fine.

In the absence of Southerland, first-year forward Jerami Grant played a career-high 29 minutes and scored a collegiate-best 13 points, while center/power forward Dajuan Coleman provided a nice second-half spark inside.

After the game, head coach Jim Boeheim admitted the freshmen trio won the game for SU, which improved to 4-0 in league play. (Though, it's tough not to mention C.J. Fair's game-high 22 points and the three-minute, second-half span he took over the game.)

This is a good sign if the Orange are going to be without Southerland, the player, for the rest of the season.

(Note: Southerland was still shooting a high overall percentage from the field, 49-percent, which is better than MCW, C.J. Fair and Brandon Triche, and was the squad's second-best rebounder at 5.2 per game.)

However, the loss of Southerland, the leader, will be bigger than most realize.

Last season, when Melo was ruled ineligible not once but twice, SU had a solid core of seniors - point guard Scoop Jardine and forward Kris Joseph - to help the team overcome literally its biggest loss.

Despite all of the outside issues last year, reporters could always ask Jardine a tough question and he'd answer it.

The floor general also was the level-headed one on the floor. If the team needed a run-stopping 3-pointer, he seemed to deliver. If the team needed a pass-first guard, he seemed happy to do so.

Joseph also had no problem doing what was needed in tight situations. That's why last year's squad was so good in close games.

Some will debate if the goofy, not-so-serious Southerland was actually a leader and his presence helped keep this Orange squad level-headed.

However, I will tell you from talking with Southerland on a few occasions, including the preseason talk in New York, he was ready to lead this team and, like every senior, make his mark on the program.

Unfortunately, it seems like he's leaving the wrong mark and in the process hurting the development of this young team.

Now, all the leadership falls on the shoulders of Triche, who's still a quiet player that leads by example more than words, and an all-of-a-sudden erratic sophomore point guard MCW, who earlier in the season was busted for shoplifting - a not-so-nice quality for a leader to have.

It is possible Fair could step up, but he will more than likely lead with his outstanding play.

Whatever the solution is, it is obvious the Orange would be better if Southerland hadn't put his teammates in this situation.

The fact is, this isn't last year's squad that had Jardine, Joseph or Dion Waiters to make up for the loss of Melo. This year's squad is more fragile and has a lot more flaws that will be exposed in bigger, more important Big East games.

(I dislike being the negative nancy around here, but last year's team without Melo would have blown out Villanova on Saturday.)

The only fortunate thing is the Boeheim-coached team has a full week of practice to work out the James Southerland-less kinks before facing (now) a more talented Louisville squad and a hungry-for-a-victory Cincinnati team on Monday.

We will all soon find out how great Boeheim and his company of assistant coaches are and whether or not this team is tough enough to hang with solid Big East opponents without a senior leader, who brought this controversy on his team.

Southerland said back in Oct. his team would be ready for something like this. I guess, we will find out if they really are.