Sunday, March 31, 2013

Syracuse's defense has been downright offensive as Orange reach Final Four

                We hear often about an athlete being in the zone, a locked-in mental state where everything is in perfect harmony and the athlete is on a roll.
                Well, the Syracuse University basketball team clearly has been in a zone of late – a 2-3 zone that has been more difficult for opponents to solve than a Rubik’s Cube; a 2-3 zone that has carried the Orange men to a fifth Final Four.
                It’s funny, but a zone defense has long been looked upon with disdain. It’s been called a lazy man’s defense, something you play to compensate for inferior athletes who supposedly aren’t talented enough to play the more manly man-to-man.
                But there is little lazy or unathletic about Jim Boeheim’s suffocating, discombobulating zone. If you don’t believe me, just ask the players and coaches from Montana, Cal, Indiana or Marquette – SU’s four vanquished NCAA Tournament opponents. Or check out the stat sheet. The numbers don’t lie. They are mind-boggling.
                Those four teams averaged a paltry 45.7 points vs. Syracuse and shot just 29 percent from the field and 15 percent (14-for-92) from beyond the 3-point arc. During that span, the Orange men forced 67 turnovers and allowed just 61 field goals. They averaged 11 steals and six blocks.
                They limited Indiana, the nation’s third-most prolific offense to a season-low 50 points in the Sweet Sixteen, then yielded just 39 points – an NCAA Elite Eight-record-tying low – against Marquette Saturday to punch their ticket to the Final Four for the first time since winning it all 10 years ago.
                Defense isn’t sexy. Some regard it as exciting as watching paint dry or shoveling snow. But I disagree. This may not be Nolan Richardson’s forty minutes of hell, but it’s pretty close.
                Boeheim’s defense clearly has evolved through the years and even during the course of this season. It is a much more aggressive, trapping, force-the-action attack than it used to be. Give Boeheim plenty of credit for understanding long before many other coaches the importance of length in addition to height. Measurements of wing spans can be as meaningful as head-to-toe measurements.
                His players clearly have bought into the zone. And it’s been enjoyable watching the hustle and passion they’ve displayed in disrupting opposing offenses.
                What’s interesting about this zone is that it’s been successful despite lacking an intimidating, Sultan of Swat-type center, ala Roosevelt Bouie or Etan Thomas. Kudos to Baye Moussa Keita for his spirited play anchoring the back line. He may be pencil thin and have hands of stone, but he squeezes every ounce of ability from his body, and his willingness to sacrifice has been contagious.
                One of the keys to this zone has been the scrappiness of guards Michael Carter Williams and Brandon Triche, who, at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-4, respectively, have the kind of height that wreaks havoc with opposing guards. And I’ve been especially impressed with the defensive effort of late of James Southerland, who is a shooter first, but who has shown a willingness to play “D” and grab key rebounds. The other forward, C.J. Fair, has always been solid back there, making blocks, altering shots and hauling in rebounds.
                Zones, like offensive lines in football, have to work in synch. One link breaks down and the whole chain breaks. But this Syracuse team has played the zone to perfection lately. And even when someone does blow an assignment, there often is a teammate there to pick them up.
                They are showing that defense can be fun to watch. And we already know that defense wins championships. Perhaps these Orange men are in a zone similar to the one that catapulted the program to its first NCAA title a decade ago.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Syracuse basketball has been a pleasant surprise

I clearly didn’t see this coming.

And neither did the people I know who bleed Syracuse Orange.

                Just two weeks ago, this team appeared to be as deflated as a punctured basketball. The air seemingly had gone out of the Orange men’s season with four losses in their final five games and seven in their final 12.

                But they’ve clearly found new life in the post-season, and now, after winning six of their last seven they are on the verge of reaching the Final Four for the fifth time in school history.

                Credit their revival to their smothering, octopus-like, 2-3 zone defense, which takes full advantage of their athleticism and length to stifle even the best of offenses.

                 I thought for sure that Indiana center Cody Zeller would have a field day inside against the foul-prone SU big men. But reserve center Baye Moussa Keita made like the second coming of Etan Thomas and Roosevelt Bouie, rejecting Zeller three times as the Orange man-handled the high-octane Hoosiers, 61-50.

                Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche played terrific defense at the top of the zone, and Keita – the Syracuse MVP of the post-season – was aided on the back line by C.J. Fair and James Southerland. SU combined for 11 blocks and 11 steals and forced 19 turnovers. The Hoosiers, who entered the game with the nation’s most efficient offense, were held to a season-low 50 points and had their poorest shooting game of the campaign, making only 34 percent of their attempts overall, and just 20 percent from beyond the arc.

                The enigmatic MCW played like a top-five NBA draft pick, with 24 points, five rebounds, four steals and two turnovers. For the third consecutive game, the occasionally scoring-challenged Orange men got off to a fast start. In their three NCAA tournament victories, they’ve outscored opponents by a combined 104-61 in the first half.

                So, now, it will be a Big East rematch with Marquette, which edged them on the road, 74-71, a month ago. Guard Devante Gardner went off on SU in that game, scoring 26 points on 7-for-7 shooting from the field to go along with 12 free throws in 13 attempts. Marquette went to the line 35 times compared to just seven trips by Syracuse.

                Buzz Peterson, who is now being mentioned for the vacant UCLA job, has his team playing very well, as evidenced by its 71-61 victory against the University of Miami.

                Marquette has some physical guards who are quite familiar with the zone, so the element of surprise which contributed to the unraveling of Indiana won’t be a factor.

                Much will depend on the play of MCW. He took advantage of scoring opportunities vs. the Hoosiers, but may need to revert more to a distribution role against Marquette. Keita, who has inspired teammates with his hustle and defense, will need to continue to play well. And SU might need more points from James Southerland, who attempted just three shots the other night and finished with five points.

                I think this has the potential to be a fantastic game, given the conference familiarity factor.

                The Orange men will have revenge on their minds, along with somewhat of a home-court advantage at the Verizon Center.

                Just three weeks ago, they managed but 39 points in this very same building against Georgetown.

                How sweet it would be for Orange fans to use the Hoyas home court as the springboard to another Final Four?

                I definitely didn’t see this coming.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A quarter-century later, this Syracuse loss still "Smarts"

                Syracuse fans will have to brace themselves tonight for a barrage or replays and mentions of how the Orangemen were out-Smarted in the 1987 NCAA championship game.

                Of course, the instant Indiana secured its Sweet 16 matchup against SU last Sunday, the name Keith Smart popped into every long-time Syracuse fan’s head. A quarter-century later Smart’s dagger-in-the-heart corner jumper continues to haunt citizens of Orange Nation.

                I’ve covered SU basketball for 37 years and have followed the program since the days when Jim Boeheim was a gangly, bespectacled player who had the good sense of finding open spaces, so the double- and tripled-teamed Dave Bing would have a passing option.

                And I still contend that ’86-87 team was the best SU hoops squad I’ve covered, definitely superior to the 2002-03 club that won the NCAA title.

                 You had General Sherman Douglas manning the point, Rony Seikaly at center and a rebounding machine named Derrick Coleman at power forward. Each of them went on to have successful NBA careers and are in the debate for positions on SU’s all-time starting five. Shooting guard Greg Monroe could fill it up consistently from beyond the arc and small forward Howard Triche was a scrappy, blue-collar-type player who had his moments. Stevie Thompson provided instant offense off the bench, and bruisers like Derek Brower and Rodney Walker could come in and bang the boards.

                And that makes that loss to the Hoosiers all the more difficult for SU fans to swallow because this appeared to be one of those instances when the most talented team did not win.

                I wish sportswriters and sportscasters would stop mis-using the word “avenge.” Do they really believe an SU victory in a Sweet Sixteen matchup will “avenge” a loss in a national championship game? If these teams were playing in the NCAA title game, I might agree, but not in this case. It reminded me of the time when the Bills were playing the Cowboys in a regular-season game after Dallas had defeated Buffalo in consecutive Super Bowls, and my fellow writers and broadcasters were talking about how the Bills were attempting to “avenge” those losses. Puh-lease.

                Speaking of tonight’s game, I think it may be a bad matchup for Syracuse. I can see Hoosiers center Cody Zeller having a field day vs. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita.
              The keys to an Orange victory, include:

·         Five or six 3’s by James Southerland;

·         Error-free ball-handling and some slashing baskets by Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche;

·         A big-night from C.J. Fair, who has a height advantage and a matchup he can exploit;

·         A superior defensive effort, in which SU clamps down on Indiana’s dangerous 3-point shooters and does a credible job of sagging back and denying Zeller the ball;

·         At least a 70-percent success rate by Syracuse at the free throw line.

   You can read more of my pre-game musings at

                You know how the obnoxious John Sterling likes to spout, “Robbie Cano, don’t ya know?” Well, I have a spin-off of that phrase that relates to the 2013 Yankees: “Robbie Cano and I don’t know.” As in, who the heck are these imposters in pinstripes next to Robinson Cano? As I talk about in this week’s commentary on the baseball radio show I co-host on WYSL 1040 AM, these broken-down, ancient Yankees remind me a lot of the Yankees of the mid-1960s.

                I’m picking the Washington Nationals to beat the California Angels in the World Series. Neither my Yankees or the Red Sox make the playoffs. In fact, each team will be battling to avoid the AL East basement.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Syracuse regains some mojo, but remains a mystery team

                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.