Jim Boeheim, the undertaker’s son and legendary coach, joked that he tasted dirt a week ago as we pundits lowered the coffin on Syracuse University’s basketball season.
Well, who could blame us for writing off the Orange? His team had been reeling, losing four of its last five and seven of its final 12 regular-season games. Saving your worst for last is hardly a great way to prep for the post-season.
But the Orange men finally showed some grit during the Big East Conference tournament at SU’s home-away-from-home – Madison Square Garden. With two solid wins against Seton Hall and Pitt and a gutsy overtime victory against Georgetown, they regained some confidence. Of course, you can’t help but wonder if they lost a little of that swagger after coming unraveled in the second half against Louisville in Saturday night’s tourney title game. In a melt-down of epic proportions, they squandered a 16-point, second-half lead in a 78-61 blowout loss to the Cardinals.
Matchups are such a big part of the NCAA tournament – perhaps more so than ever in this year of parity in college basketball – so we’ll wait to see what Selection Sunday brings before rendering any more predictions about the Cuse. One good thing is that SU won’t be paired with Louisville at least for two rounds.
The Orange men can take several positives from the Big East Tournament. First and foremost, they stopped being the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Entering the Garden party, they were making just 31 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, and their best long-range threat, James Southerland, came to the Big Apple on a 1-fot-13 skid. Fortunately, Southerland got out of his funk and went on a Gerry McNamara-like tear, nailing a tournament record 19 3’s in 37 attempts. SU was 37-of-74 – a torrid 50 percent – from deep. If Southerland & Company can stay at least reasonably hot, they might just go a ways in the NCAAs.
I also like the passion with which Baye Moussa Keita is playing. He was out of this world in the Georgetown game and he was solid again last night with eight points, six rebounds and three blocks.
The guard play remains a concern. Michael Carter Williams and Brandon Triche wilted badly against Louisville’s press, committing 11 turnovers and failing to run anything resembling an offense once Southerland went to the bench with a fourth foul with 15:34 to go. I know Southerland’s departure was a huge blow, but, come on, you still had a double-digit lead and you were essentially playing in front of a home crowd. Neither guard could handle the pressure of the Cardinals full-court press. They played passively, instead of attacking it. (As an aside, MCW is crazy if he thinks he’s ready for the NBA. He’d have problems in the Developmental League at this stage. He has a long, long way to go.)
The other killer was foul shooting. SU went 12-of-26 from the line, and MCW was just 2-for-9. If the Orange me had converted, say, 75 percent of those free throw attempts, they might have been able to stop the tsunami.
My good friend and basketball guru, Frank Bilovsky, said that he didn’t know which Syracuse team would show up last night. As it turned out, both did. Frank was spot on with that assessment. The Orange men’s Jekyll-Hyde nature makes it so hard to gauge how they will do in the NCAAs. They’re probably going to be a fourth seed and they aren’t going to face anybody as tenacious as Louisville right off the bat. But it won’t matter who they are matched-up against if they revert to the form they showed before the Big East Tournament and during the second half of the championship game.
They are going to need to shoot well from beyond the arc. MCW and Triche are going to need to be less careless with the basketball. Keita is going to have to continue to be productive, so they’ll be able to get at least something out of the center position. And they are going to need to make some free throws.