Syracuse is now 27-1 on the season and 14-1 in the Big East after winning at Rutgers on Sunday by a final score of 74-64, matching the point spread exactly in a sloppy game that was within 2 to 6 points for almost its entirety until Scoop Jardine hit a crushing 3-pointer late and the Orange held on to win at the RAC. I was at the game, in the handicapped section because I'm still having severe unending pain in my surgically "repaired" foot and I was wearing the boot, and it wasn't pretty. Neither the play of the Orange or me limping around the RAC in a boot. I know Rutgers plays tough at home regardless of their record and we've often struggled to win there through the years, regardless of how good we are, and they executed very well on offense, particularly inside, but still... we barely beat 12-14 Rutgers. Is it time to worry? They spent all game pumping it into their big white guy -- #55 -- who was scoring at will and with ease whenever he was on the floor, which fortunately was not much at the end of the game as he was suffering from cramps or dehydration or something and kept having to go to the locker room in the last 10 minutes of the contest. Which might be why the Cuse held on to win. And when you are being destroyed by Gilvydas Biruta, you are probably not exactly ready to make the Final Four. So that's disappointing. And for a team that seemed on a roll toward history for most of the season, things have gotten derailed quite a bit since Fab Melo first missed a game at Notre Dame (and the team got its first loss). They've kept winning, but it's been ugly, and with the exception of last Saturday's game against UConn, I haven't once felt this was one of the best teams in the nation. Before Fab went out with "academic issues", I never had those doubts. Fab's back now. And playing great (although not on Sunday, on defense). So what the hell has happened to this team?
The Orange offense has bogged down in the grinding Big East schedule, where the zones of Georgetown and Louisville largely shut us down in the half court and the opponents' solid ballhandling (except by Peyton Siva at the end of the Louisville game -- thanks Peyton!) has limited turnovers and fast-break opportunities. What once was a smooth fluid offense has turned into a dichotomy of highlight reel alley-oops, dunks, and blistering cross-overs turned into layouts juxtaposed with a complete and utter lack of ability to shoot the ball from outside the lane. Kris Joseph is still making 3's (and singlehandedly won the Georgetown game on his outside shooting) but Dion Waiters, Brandon Triche, and James Southerland -- all strong 3-point shooters for the first half of the season -- are not contributing much from outside anymore, if at all. Dion is probably the biggest issue, as his offensive game has cratered, scoring in double digits in only 2 of the last 7 games -- the last 7 games starting with the Notre Dame loss without Fab. His confidence is completely shaken and while he was our best and most reliable scorer for most of the season, now he just seems to drive the lane, throw up a miracle, and hope for a foul. But Boeheim has settled into a regular rotation of Dion - Scoop - Joseph - CJ Fair - Melo, so Dion is in there all the time, regardless of his play, leaving Brandon Triche on the sideline in the second half of most games. CJ Fair has been a stud -- he was the best player on the court in both the Louisville and Rutgers wins -- and Joseph has generally continued to play well (although his defense and rebounding still disappear too often) but without Dion contributing much and with Triche and Southerland on the bench, the offense is falling too much on Scoop, which wasn't the case for the 1st half of season. Scoop is playing well, but Scoop is still Scoop and his shooting is erratic (he went 8 for 9 against UConn and followed that up with 0 for 7 against Louisville), plus he's still good for at least 2 Scoop-id plays a half that have you pulling your hair out. Right now, though, I'd rather he have the ball in his hands at the end of the game than Dion. And that's pretty fucking scary. Scoop had the ball in his hands at the end of the Marquette game in last year's NCAA tourney. That was our last game of the year.
The defense has been generally strong, although the rebounding remains an unending disaster, and defense is the strength of the team. But when the offense is clicking, this is a title contender. Unfortunately, the offense cannot click it appears without Dion Waiters. Not Dion playing like this. Triche even on his best days -- and he doesn't find the court enough lately to find his best days -- cannot touch Dion at a high level, the Dion from earlier this season. As well as CJ is playing and as great as Fab has been since his return (the Rutgers game excepted) and as surprisingly stellar Scoop has been in certain games and as steady and strong as Kris Joseph has been, this team is not going to the Final Four without the Dion Waiters we saw early in the season, when I was pretty sure he was coming out for the NBA. I guess on the bright side, if he continues this poorly, we'll see him again next year in an Orange uniform. But I would trade a Final Four for that any day. Come back, Dion, we miss you.
Scoop to CJ in the 2nd half of the Rutgers game... CJ is playing like a superstar right now.