We knew it was too good to be true. The hot start with a win at the Battle for Atlantis was fool’s gold for Syracuse University men’s basketball fans, and we were happy to dig up every ounce of it while the team played at a level we shouldn’t have expected it to maintain. Now the Orange are 7-3, having lost three of the last four, and the question is: what’s wrong with Syracuse?
Obviously, there are some mitigating factors at work here, and it’s still awfully early in the season. Things could conceivably be turned around, and Mike Hopkins could get his feet under him a bit over the next few games, and the team could bounce back even more when Jim Boeheim returns from his suspension in January. But if you ask me, that likely won’t be enough.
Look, I’m about as optimistic a Syracuse fan as there is, but even I’m willing to admit the writing is on the wall, and it spells “NIT.” And that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone other than those who bought into the hype after the wins over UConn and Texas A&M in the Bahamas.
The fact of the matter is that this team is just not constructed the way we need it to be to succeed in the Jim Boeheim system. It’s severely undersized, which we knew would be an issue as soon as Thomas Bryant chose Indiana, and especially when the NCAA dragged its feet on a decision with Moustapha Diagne and caused him to go the JUCO route. Without an adequate big man backing up Dajuan Coleman, the Orange just don’t have the size or muscle to compete. One of the consistent problems throughout the year – even in wins – has been the team’s inability to rebound, particularly against more physical opponents, like Wisconsin.
But that’s not the only issue, of course. Now before I dive into this next part, please keep in mind I like the individual players I’m talking about here. I think there’s a lot of talent. I like Jim Boeheim and Mike Hopkins and will regularly defer to their basketball acumen. But to be perfectly frank, I think they’re using their personnel wrong, particularly as it pertains to Michael Gbinije.
There’s a major problem when the kid who is by far your best scorer gets 11 shots – fewer than Malachi Richardson took in the second half alone against St. John’s. And it all starts with the decision to put Gbinije at the point guard position, severely hindering your best scorer’s chances to get good, clean looks at the basket. Gbinije has been scoring just fine this season, of course, but he’s forced into the role of a facilitator, when in reality the offense should be geared toward facilitating for him, not the other way around.
One of the frustrating things to watch so far this year has been Malachi Richardson’s increasingly poor shot selection, coupled with the fact that his jumper just is not falling. Against the Red Storm, his shot selection reminded me of a young, raw, overly confident, and still not quite good enough to be taking those kinds of shots freshman Dion Waiters. Only the difference here is that while Dion could get his offense going by attacking the rim, Richardson too often settles for step back jumpers that miss badly, and like any shooter, he simply has zero remorse when it comes to taking them over and over and over again.
Somehow, Richardson has become one of the primary options on offense but doesn’t really have anyone to create his shots for him, which is what he needs to have happen if he wants to get his shot to start falling. Gbinije, as I mentioned, is being used wrong and simply shouldn’t be a facilitator, and you can see how stagnant the offense has gotten since the team returned from Atlantis. Over and over again against St. John’s, I watched in horror while players just stood around while either Richardson or Gbinije tried to create their own shots. The spacing is terrible, the movement is even worse, and no one seems to have any real idea of what to do in the half court setting.
Meanwhile, the team has proven to be a far worse shooting team than we’d originally hoped or expected. Yes, they can get hot and knock down some triples. The issue is that the two guys taking the most three pointers are the epitome of streak shooters. At this point, Trevor Cooney is what he is, and his shooting just doesn’t seem like it’s going to be good in anything more than a few spurts here and there. He’s been attacking the basket more this year, which is good, but he’s a pretty terrible finisher around the rim, to put it mildly. And his mechanics on his jumper are just severely out of whack whenever he has to really move into a shot. He’s struggling to get square and go straight up with his jumper, his legs contorting and his momentum carrying him to the side half the time. That’s not a recipe for success when it comes to shooting the basketball from deep.
Meanwhile, the guy who should be taking the most shots, Gbinije, is stuck facilitating and the guy who is probably the best pure shooter on the team, Tyler Lydon, is setting screens and is probably a little too unselfish, quickly swinging the ball around the perimeter instead of looking for his own jumper on most occasions when he is hanging around the three point line.
So what do you do with the point guard position? It’s become abundantly clear that nothing will be changed, and that the six man rotation is going to stay pretty firmly in place. Honestly, I’d be happy to see either Frank Howard or Kaleb Joseph get a little more run, as both have shown some flashes of being able to create offense for their teammates. Joseph, for example, was in the game for only a few minutes against St. John’s but immediately sliced through the defense and set up teammates for good scoring chances on two straight trips, but was yanked from the game and never heard from again. Howard likewise can get into the lane and create, but is stuck behind Gbinije, Cooney, and Richardson for playing time.
Like I said at the outset, there aren’t a lot of answers for what ails this team. There’s talent, but not enough of it, and not in the right spots for what this team wants to do. I hate to say this, but this could be a long season for Syracuse fans, and at this point I’m fully expecting the team to fall short of that 20 victory plateau. Hopefully, there will be a game or two when the entire team gets hot from the perimeter and routs a team it shouldn’t.
There’s a lot wrong with the current makeup of this Syracuse team, and I’m just not sure it’s anything that anyone can realistically fix as the season progresses.