To paraphrase TS Eliot, “This is the way the season ends / Not with a bang, but a whimper.” That particular quote seems pretty fitting, considering the way that Syracuse Orange limped across the finish line in what has become one of the most forgettable seasons in program history for a variety of reasons. After knocking off a pair of highly regarded teams in Louisville and Notre Dame, the Orange still dropped each of the final three games, including a dismal 71-57 loss at NC State on Saturday.
And that, as they say, is that. Syracuse came out looking fairly sharp against a Wolfpack team that, by contrast, was pretty sloppy early on, and the Orange actually grabbed a 23-15 lead. The score was 25-17 when NC State went on a 16-0 run spanning the end of the first half and the start of the second, and frankly, as soon as the Wolfpack grabbed a halftime lead I’m not sure the outcome was really in doubt, considering the way Syracuse played over those final few minutes of the opening frame.
We all probably had a feeling that Syracuse might be in for a long day when Rakeem Christmas, so steady all season, started the game 0-for-6 with two traveling violations. It seemed pretty clear that Rakeem was pressing, missing bunnies that are normally automatic. Yes, Christmas finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks, but his 5-of-16 shooting performance was reminiscent of his first matchup against Duke and Jahlil Okafor. Beejay Anya in particular seemed to give Christmas trouble in the post, and the senior finished his Syracuse career with a tough personal performance, and a disheartening loss.
The Orange finish the 2014-2015 campaign with a record of 18-13 overall, and 9-9 in the ACC. It’s a decidedly pedestrian record for a decidedly pedestrian team that simply had far too many flaws to overcome, and with the self imposed postseason ban earlier in the year and now the massive sanctions handed down by the NCAA just yesterday, it feels like the weight of those distractions almost became too much for this team today.
That’s not to say that this team quit. On the contrary, the Orange fought back to single digits after trailing by nearly 20 points midway through the second half, cutting it to nine points on a Buss Patterson free throw at one point late in the game. Syracuse didn’t lose today because they gave up. They lost today because – and at this point, with the season in the books I think we can finally be completely truthful about this – they simply weren’t very good this year. When you can’t shoot, you’ve got no depth, play mediocre defense, occasionally struggle to rebound, and don’t have reliable ballhandlers, you’re going to have some serious trouble getting wins against decent teams.
NC State has long loomed as a dangerous team on the schedule, particularly playing in Raleigh. That proved to be the case today, as the Wolfpack hit the boards, forced turnovers, blocked shots, and knocked down three pointers at all of the key times to first shift momentum and then keep momentum moving squarely in their favor. Ralston Turner, after not scoring in the first half, finished with 19 points after hitting five three pointers after the break.
Trevor Lacey and Cat Barber gave Syracuse fits all game, and Anya made a lot more of an impact than his five point, four rebound, three block stat line would lead anyone to believe. In short, Syracuse was simply out played today. The Orange didn’t get a lot of production from players it needed to step up, and the shooting woes that were evident all season continued today. The Orange shot just 32.8% from the field, and even that number is deceptive. For most of the game, Syracuse was below 30% from the field, and hitting only 8-of-35 shots to start the game. That’s a staggering number for a high level Division I basketball program. When you can’t score the basketball, you’re not going to win. Period.
The trio of Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, and Kaleb Joseph combined to hit just 8-of-29 shots, including just 4-of-16 three pointers. Overall, the team was 5-of-19 from three, and that includes walk-on Carter Sanderson’s three point make with about three seconds left in the game.
The one big bright spot in the game was the play of Tyler Roberson, who bounced back from a poor performance against Virginia to put up 16 points and 11 rebounds. Roberson hit 6-of-13 shots, which isn’t great, but he was extremely active on the glass. Four of his 11 boards came on the offensive end of the court, and those offensive boards and putbacks were essential for the Orange. Without Roberson’s contributions today, this game could have easily wound up being a margin of 20 points.
Now all we can do is move forward, and hope for better next year. The NCAA sanctions are out there, and Syracuse will no doubt appeal. Hopefully some of the scholarship restrictions will be lessened, but as Jim Boeheim said even before the sanctions were announced, this will be an offseason of tremendous change. Rakeem Christmas has played his last game in Orange, and that’s where the change starts. Hopefully some combination of Chris McCullough, Chino Obokoh, DaJuan Coleman, and Moustapha Diagne can step up to replace him. That of course assumes that McCullough and Coleman are back to full health, and Obokoh is still at Syracuse next year.
And that’s only the start of some potentially sweeping changes. It’s too early to speculate what the roster might look like next year, and frankly I’d be surprised if it’s all that different than what we’re currently expecting (Cooney, Gbinije, Roberson, Patterson, Johnson, Obokoh, Coleman, Joseph, McCullough, Lydon, Diagne, Richardson, Howard). But when Jim Boeheim comes out and says tremendous change is coming, that has to keep us on our toes.
The 2014-2015 season is over. This team had an abundance of heart, but unfortunately, not enough talent and depth to overcome its equal abundance of flaws. There’s no postseason ban next year, and a top 10 recruiting class headed to the Hill, though, giving Syracuse fans a reason to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the 2015-2016 season.