Well, that was unpleasant. Let’s get this part out of the way: credit goes to the Cal Bears, who outplayed Syracuse in basically every facet tonight. They made shots, Syracuse didn’t. They beat Syracuse to loose balls, and kept the Orange off the offensive glass. But I’m not going to talk about that, because it’s obvious. They made timely shots, and Syracuse proved that it’s a young team that is going to suffer through some serious growing pains, and it has some glaring flaws that may wind up being too much to overcome.
Now, this is only game three of the 2014-2015 season, so it’s obviously way, way too early to speak in definitive terms. This is a Syracuse team that’s pretty clearly going to be better at the end of the season than they are right now, as they grow and mature and things hopefully start clicking into place.
But tonight, things absolutely did not click into place. The early warning signs we got about this Orange team reared their ugly heads and proved to be massive problems, none more than the team’s almost complete inability to knock down perimeter jumpers. It’s more than a little frustrating to watch a team play and slowly start to realize that every attempt from outside of 10 feet is going to be a wasted offensive trip, but that’s how it felt watching Syracuse tonight. And to make matters worse, when the Orange took shots around the rim they weren’t too much more successful.
Things went very wrong, very quickly for Syracuse after trading baskets with the Bears early, but in reality the only reason it was close through the first half was because Cal was shooting just as poorly as the Orange. Once the Bears, who came in shooting extremely well from the perimeter as a team, got into a rhythm offensively it stopped being a contest. Cal hit four threes down the stretch in the first half to open up a 34-22 halftime lead and, for all intents and purposes, that was that.
In the second half, every time the Orange tried to chip away at the lead the Bears had an answer, usually in the form of Jordan Mathews or Jabari Bird, who combined for 38 points in the game. They each hit some big shots, but some of the blame absolutely has to go to the Syracuse defensive effort. Too many times tonight, defenders closed out with their hands at their sides, failing to even attempt to get a hand up and disrupt the shooting motion of Cal’s jump shooters. More often than not when that happened, the Bears made the Orange pay.
It didn’t help that Syracuse not only shot the ball poorly, but also took some horrendous shots and made some stupefying decisions with the basketball. Someone needs to tell these guys that you don’t get more points for degree of difficulty. Kaleb Joseph was particularly indecisive, on more than one occasion driving the baseline for what should have been an easy reverse layup only to try to force a pass and instead turn the ball over. Between the lazy, dumb turnovers and the poor defensive rotations, along with the terrible shooting performance (unofficially, Syracuse shot 37.1% from the field and 26.7% from deep), it was basically an impossible task for Syracuse to try to overcome what turned into as much as a 19 point lead for Cal.
On top of the poor offense and sporadically terrible defense, another glaring problem looks to be the team’s lack of overall strength down low. Other than Rakeem Christmas the Orange are painfully thin and lacking in power down low, and this is proving to be an area where Syracuse desperately misses DaJuan Coleman. Too many times, Chris McCullough or BJ Johnson or Tyler Roberson was stripped, or unable to get a shot up through contact, or couldn’t hang onto the ball on a rebound, and each time the resulting play would go in Cal’s favor. David Kravish had a bit of a field day, as he was able to simply out work and out muscle the Syracuse front line with Christmas battling foul trouble basically from the start and having his poorest offensive game so far this season.
If you’re going to come out of this game looking for areas of improvement for Syracuse to work on, you could really say, “everything” and you wouldn’t be far off. The Orange did show signs of life late and you have to credit them for playing until the final whistle, but things were just way too easy for the Bears on far too many possessions. Even when the Orange went to a full court press, the defense was woefully out of position and relied far too heavily on Chris McCullough to try to make a defensive play at the other end. If your trapping press can be broken and it results in four of your five defenders being behind the ball, that’s a problem.
Chris McCullough is talented, but needs to get a hell of a lot stronger. Kaleb Joseph is quick and clearly has skills, but looks like a shaky freshman point guard still trying to figure things out. Trevor Cooney continues to struggle with his jumper. Tyler Roberson still looks skittish half the time he touches the ball. Rakeem Christmas is turning into an offensive threat, but as tonight proved, when his shots aren’t falling the Orange are going to struggle, and he’s going to wind up taking himself out of the game.
Michael Gbinije was certainly a highlight, if you want something to take away. He was aggressive on both ends of the floor, and looked like a guy who should maybe work his way into the starting lineup at small forward sooner rather than later.
But the bottom line is that this was one of the most poorly played games any Syracuse basketball team has had in several years. Nothing was going right for Syracuse, and while Cal is clearly much better than their preseason projections, there’s simply no way that the Orange should have lost 73-59, in a score that’s actually a little misleading considering the Bears were 15-20 points better than the Orange tonight.
It’s a long season, and things can and should get better. Hopefully we won’t be telling ourselves, “this is going to be a looooong season” in a bad way with a nice bottle of whiskey tomorrow against Iowa.