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It’s not often that a game against Clemson would be considered pivotal for a Syracuse University basketball season, but that’s precisely where Mike Hopkins and the Orange find themselves tonight as they host the Tigers in the Carrier Dome. With a record of 10-5, the Battle for Atlantis feels like an awfully long time ago, and the Orange could be on track for an historically bad season by Syracuse standards.

We knew coming into the year that things might be tough for the Orange given the lack of depth and the less than ideal makeup of the team, especially when Jim Boeheim’s suspension was not only not overturned, but rushed up to a new start date which, with tonight’s game, finally comes to an end. There’s been some unrest within the fanbase about how Mike Hopkins has handled the team in his mentor’s absence, and while some of it is certainly with merit, it’s tough to completely fault Hopkins for the way things have gone so far in his first eight games on the sidelines.

The Orange have gone 4-4 under Hopkins, with some pretty ugly and disappointing wins along the way – St. John’s in particular standing out as an inexcusable loss. The Pittsburgh game seemed to be in hand before it slipped away late, and the Orange were certainly in a position to beat Miami but, given they were playing a top 15-ranked team on the road, that loss is obviously more forgivable. But even with some of the coaching errors that have taken place, I’m not ready to give up on Hopkins yet for a few reasons.

The first is that it’s got to be tough to take over a team when you realize you aren’t actually able to change how anything is done. Think of it as being a substitute teacher: you may be a great molder of young minds, but you still have to abide by the syllabus the every day teacher left behind without deviation. We still don’t know exactly what kind of program Hopkins wants to run, because he’s obviously not going to switch things up to a fast breaking, man-to-man style for nine games only for the team to have to revert back to a slower, 2-3 zone team that doesn’t get out and run nearly as often as it should.

Going back to the substitute teacher analogy – he’s simply handing out the homework he was told to assign. It’s not his job to make up his own course plan…yet.

On top of that, Jim Boeheim set the pieces on the board exactly how he wanted them, and that includes playing Michael Gbinije at the point guard position, and having Tyler Lydon log a lot of minutes at center. Neither of those things is ideal, but it’s what Boeheim wants, and therefore what Hopkins is doing. Going back to the substitute teacher analogy – he’s simply handing out the homework he was told to assign. It’s not his job to make up his own course plan…yet.

Boeheim returns to the sidelines on Saturday against No. 6-ranked North Carolina, which could get ugly in a hurry given how poorly Syracuse rebounds the basketball and how well the Tar Heels hit the glass, especially given the fact that Kennedy Meeks is likely to return to the court. Couple that with the fact that Brice Johnson just put up a ridiculous stat line of 39 points and 23 rebounds against Florida State, and it could be a very long night for the big men at Syracuse. Still, having the Hall of Fame coach back on the sideline could, and perhaps should, give the Orange a boost for the rest of the season. You have to wonder if things might have played out differently with Boeheim stalking the sideline during the Pitt and Miami games, at least.

And it’ll be crucial for the Orange to turn things around, because as I mentioned above, we could be in line for an historically bad season from a wins and losses standpoint. Right now the Orange are 10-5, marking one of the earliest dates that a Jim Boeheim-coached team has gotten to five losses. It’s happened only a handful of times during his tenure, with his squad opening the year 8-5 in the 1996-97 season; 10-5 during the 1981-82 season; and 9-5 in 1980-81. Those teams finished with records of 19-13, 16-13, and 22-12, respectively. If the Orange lose tonight, however, it would mark the earliest date on the calendar a Jim Boeheim team has gotten to six losses. Even the team that opened 8-5 in 1996-97 (you may remember that as Etan Thomas and Jason Hart’s freshman year) lost its sixth game on January 7.

Clemson is not a particularly bad team this year, either. They’re 8-6, which is obviously less than stellar, but it’s obviously far better for the Orange to be facing off against the Tigers than, say, North Carolina or Duke tonight. Syracuse hasn’t opened conference play with three straight losses in about 25 years, so getting an average team, at home, is just what the doctor ordered. Of course, in the last two ACC meetings with Clemson, things haven’t exactly been pretty, even in victory.

The last two games with the Tigers have set the game of basketball back a few years, at least if you’re a fan of offense. Syracuse lost 66-53 to Clemson last year, after having beaten the Tigers 57-44 the year before. If the Orange struggle to shoot the basketball again tonight, we could be looking at yet another ugly, grind it out result that will hopefully see the Orange emerge on top. It helps that Clemson is 0-3 on the road so far this year, but the Tigers rebound well and shoot the three with consistency, both things that have killed Syracuse this season. The Tigers have edged their opponents by an average of nearly four boards per game, while shooting just under 36% from deep as a team. Syracuse will have its hands full with Jaron Blossomgame, a 6-foot-7, 220 pound forward who averages 15.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game while shooting 38.7% from long distance (albeit on fairly limited attempts).

A lot is at stake for the Orange tonight as they play host to Clemson, and that’s something not many people could have predicted for a January 5 meeting against a program that’s historically been in the lower tier of the ACC. If Syracuse can’t pull out the win tonight, we could be looking at one of the toughest seasons in the Jim Boeheim era.

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