Well it comes down to this. A season for the ages. The all-time record for the team for wins in the season. A seemingly never-ending series of potential scandals. The loss of our star center for 3 midseason games. The loss of our star center for the postseason. 900 wins for Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim. First-team All-Big East status for senior Kris Joseph. Second-team All-Big East season for 5th-year senior Scoop Jardine. Sixth Man of the Year for Dion Waiters. #1 seed in the NCAA Brackets. #2 ranking in the country. And all if it comes down to a Sweet Sixteen matchup against Wisconsin tonight. A loss here in what has to be considered at best a 50/50 battle without Fab Melo's presence, and this historic season ends no better than each of the last three disappointing tournaments (Sweet 16 loss to A&M, Sweet 16 loss to national runner-up Butler, Round of 32 loss to Marquette). This year we come in ranked a little higher but these past 4 years have been the greatest run of success in Syracuse's vaunted history -- Kris Joseph has the most wins of any Syracuse player ever, more than Derrick Coleman or Sherman Douglas or Pearl Washington. And if we go no further, despite the greatness of this regular season, Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine's careers end here, no further than Jonny Flynn or Donte Greene or Rick Jackson or Andy Rautins went in their great Orange careers. I really won't be disappointed -- this was a great season no matter what, and the loss of Melo is certainly a huge hurdle to overcome -- but yeah, a loss here will put a damper on all the greatness of both this year and the past four years. Wisconsin's a quality team (I assume, I've only seen them once, against Vandy on Sunday, and they looked quite good). But I really really really want to win this one.
So the Cuse showed some major life on Saturday against Kansas State, a team with outstanding rebounding and a 6'-11" guy on the inside who dominated the boards in the first half without our boy Melo. But in the 2nd half, the rest of the team gelled in a way it hadn't in the three games without Melo, and to be honest, in a way they very rarely have in the half season after Melo's initial suspension back in January. Freshman Rakeem Christmas played by far his best game in the season in relief of Melo -- although to be fair, other than during Melo's suspension, he's played sparingly at best -- anchoring the zone and playing well on both offense and defense in that 2nd half of excellence (he was much shakier in the first half). Christmas had in recent games seemed to solidify his new role as center backup to Melo over sophomore Baye Keita, at least based on who came in first off the bench, and he stepped up his game immeasurably on Saturday. Unfortunately we really need him to keep playing this well for the rest of the tournament, including tonight. Without Melo we really don't have nearly as much size and shot-blocking ability -- unless "Rock" plays as well as he did against Kansas State.
As for the rest of the team, Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine are playing like seniors should. Kris has struggled with his outside shot this tournament (and stretching back for weeks now, really) so he has reverted his game back to when he couldn't shoot from outside -- sophomore year -- and just put his head down to drive the ball time and again, contributing on offense even as he shot isn't falling. He helped keep us alive in that first half on Saturday and came up big against UNC Asheville on Thursday. And he has to keep it up. Despite all the talk of Fab and despite how great Dion Waiters is playing and despite James Southerland's sudden hot streak from outside, Kris is the best player on this team and we need him to perform every single game. We need the same from Scoop too. As usual he made a number of Scoop-id plays on Saturday (6 turnovers) but he shot lights-out in the second half and actually, he's been just about our best outside shooter for the past two months -- particularly in clutch situations. And while I will keep shouting "no no no no YES!" every time Scoop steps up to take a 3-pointer, I'm just hoping he keeps coming through.
As for Dion and Jay-South, they carried us in the first two games of this tournament, playing well above where they had for most of the 2nd half of the season (although Dion turned it on during the Big East tournament). Dion is almost always the best player on the court when he's on the court (and he will be tonight) so he really just needs to play under control, keep his focus on the game and not any ancillary theatrics, and really keep grooving that shooting touch from deep. And of course Southerland has been shooting amazing from deep, which isn't surprising to anyone who saw him in November and December, but that shot not only disappeared when the Big East came calling, it went hiding under a shell 10 layers deep (I think he shot like 22% in Big East play). He lost confidence, playing time, and although in recent weeks he has contributed in rebounding and shot-blocking, he just wasn't a great contributor to the team. He almost single-handedly saved us from ignominious defeat on Thursday and kept it up on Saturday. And while his shooting has been spectacular, it's his defensive length that has helped make up for Fab's absence, and that's a great thing. There is another side to James's emergence, though, and that's the downfall of the person whose minutes he is mostly stealing ... sophomore CJ Fair. For much of the Big East season, I would have voted Fair one of our best two or three players -- in many games, the very best. He was second in minutes in Big East games (behind Joseph) and he seemed to hit every single open jumper, especially in the clutch. In the Big East tourney, though, and especially in these NCAA games, his shot has completely left him (maybe Southerland stole it away) and his confidence looks pretty shot as well. I don't know what's going on and I certainly would like him to turn it around, but obviously we can win without him (and Fab) if Southerland is playing that well, and if Joseph, Jardine, Waiters, and Mr. Christmas in March are doing their thing. So I can't really complain. Would really like Fair to turn it around and join the others in their excellence. And if Brandon Triche were to turn it up as well, that would help too. Hey, we might even get into the Final Four. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.
Wisconsin plays man-to-man I believe, which is good for our offense (we've struggled repeatedly against zones). On the other hand, they play "slow-it-down, grind-it-out" offense, which is bad for our offense (we've struggled some against those type of teams, a la Notre Dame). They hit 3-pointers like crazy on Sunday, which is bad for us, but they took about a million of them (32 actually) which is usually good for us (teams that fall in love with the 3 against our zone usually end up losing). They do have some really big white guys who could own the boards against us, but generally I don't think I've heard that they're a great rebounding team. I guess it all comes down to if we play as well as we did Saturday, we're going to win no matter what Wisconsin does. If we play as bad as we did on Thursday, we'll lose no matter what. If it's somewhere in between, we've got ourselves a match. And let's hope this great run doesn't end so soon.