After all these years, I’m being reminded that mom generally knows best. That probably sounds like a weird way to start off a recap of Syracuse’s 66-62 loss against Miami in the Carrier Dome on Saturday afternoon, but I promise it will make sense in a minute. The Orange were dreadful from the free throw line against the Hurricanes, knocking down just 8-of-19 attempts in what we in the business like to call “the biggest factor in the loss, duh.” And somewhere, my mom was nodding her head and saying, “free throws can make the difference!”
See, my dad was a college coach for a long time, and my brother and I both grew up playing basketball. My mom, on the other hand, only became a basketball fan by proxy, having been more or less a complete novice on the subject before she met my dad. And after every Syracuse game we watched on TV, and every one of my dad’s games we’d go to, or even after my brother and I played from youth leagues all the way up through high school, that would be her constant refrain.
“Free throws can make the difference!”
Turns out, she was right.
Of course, this is nothing new for the Syracuse basketball program, which has historically had a pretty horrendous reputation at the free throw line. This season the Orange are hitting just 66.2% from the line as a team, down from a more respectable 70.8% last season. Here’s how Syracuse’s free throw shooting has been stacking up since the 2001-02 season:
- 2012-13: 67.5%
- 2011-12: 69.8%
- 2010-11: 66.5%
- 2009-10: 67.7%
- 2008-09: 64.5%
- 2007-08: 66.8%
- 2006-07: 69.5%
- 2005-06: 64.3%
- 2004-05: 66.7%
- 2003-04: 64.3%
- 2002-03: 69.4%
- 2001-02: 65.0%
A few things stand out, most notably that, in all that time, the only season Syracuse has shot better than 70% from the free throw line was last year. It’s kind of astonishing that the Orange shot so poorly from 2003-04 through 2005-06, considering they had Gerry McNamara and his basically automatic foul shooting on the roster. It’s a problem year after year, and one of the ways that hey, at least the Orange are consistently inconsistent.
Of course today against Miami, that’s not the only way they were inconsistent – in a pretty consistent matter. Both halves against the Hurricanes, the Orange allowed Miami to get hot early and jump out to big leads, only to come storming back, showing a remarkable lack of consistency on both ends of the court. Despite the fact that Syracuse must have known with absolute certainty that Miami would attempt to beat them from the perimeter, the Orange were also consistently inconsistent with their defensive rotations and close outs, repeatedly leaving shooters open. Kaleb Joseph continued his poor streak of closing out on shooters with his arms firmly at his sides, rather than getting a hand in the shooter’s face. That’s basketball camp 101 right there, Kaleb. It’s remarkable it’s still such a foreign concept to a high level college basketball player.
Another example of consistent inconsistency came in the form of Trevor Cooney, whose streak shooting was right there, perfectly summed up in the game’s final minute, when he buried a clutch three pointer to keep the Orange alive and then, with the team trailing by three in the final seconds, airballed his next attempt.
But enough on all of that. We already know that Syracuse lost, and that the team basically blew this one at the free throw line. You simply can’t afford to leave more points at the line than you actually put on at the line. Making eight free throws and missing 11 is barely acceptable for fifth graders, let alone elite, Division I athletes.
The shining star in the game was Rakeem Christmas, who overcame a slow start against the big, bruising Tonye Jekiri to put up 23 points and eight boards – most of which came in the second half as Christmas scored 18 of the team’s final 32 points. Tyler Roberson continued his growth and is turning into a promising young talent and a beast on the glass, scoring 10 points (most of which came early) and snagging 14 rebounds, leading the team in that category.
Kaleb Joseph continued his rocky freshman season, logging just 21 minutes due largely to his continued defensive struggles. Seriously, Kaleb – learn not to leave shooters that wide open and you’ll earn a whole lot more trust from Jim Boeheim. Cooney finished with a solid stat line, scoring 14 and to go with four assists and three steals, but he knocked down just 3-of-9 threes and once again spending most of his time hanging around the three point arc. After a scorching hot streak of games, Michael Gbinije also seems to be coming back to earth in a hurry, hitting just 3-of-8 shots and finishing with nine points, five boards, and three assists.
We’re too deep into the season to realistically believe there’s going to be much more growth from this team, though obviously it’s possible. But at this point, with such a young, injury ravaged team, we might just have to start accepting this squad for what it is: an up and down group of kids that’s simply unable to put together a full 40 minutes of solid basketball, and is destined to slide off the NCAA Tournament bubble when Selection Sunday rolls around. In other words, they’re consistently–oh, you get the point by now.