So the Syracuse Orange are ranked 7th in the country and stand at a solid 14-1 two games into the Big East conference season. What looked like a potential national championship team when they were blowing out non-conference foes by 30+ points devolved into a series of question marks after a bad loss to Temple and then two middling performances against the final two non-conference patsies. But then they recovered to cruise to impressive wins against Rutgers and at South Florida, so the question is back to -- can this team win it all? The answer below.
Right now, no. There are still too many question marks. (sort of like this post). The main problem right now is that the younger players -- the sophomores and freshmen we are counting on to drive us to success -- have been inconsistent (in the case of budding superstar Michael Carter-Williams) or worse (in the case of centers Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman). The centers are and were an expected issue coming into the season and nothing I've seen so far has changed that. In fact, with the limited minutes Coleman has gotten lately (lasting only a couple minutes before a benching), they're probably in worse shape than anyone would have predicted. Against South Florida, backup center Baye Moussa Keita got four fouls early in the 2nd half, forcing Boeheim to return Christmas to the game, when he was being rested with three fouls. With about 8 or 9 minutes to play (and a decent lead at the time), Christmas logged his fourth. But instead of going with the freshman Coleman for a couple minutes before crunch time, Boeheim stuck with Christmas for the rest of the game. If Mr. 904 Wins doesn't have faith in the big guy, I certainly don't. So we're left with Christmas and Keita, the two guys forced to play all the center minutes last season in the NCAAs when Fab Melo got kicked off the team. And we saw how well that went. Now admittedly both are much better this year -- Keita particularly is light years better -- but Christmas, who Boeheim clearly wants to step up and seize the role, is terribly inconsistent, showing flashes of athleticism and defense that the team desperately needs in between stretches of missing assignments and fouling way too much. It's troubling.
As for MCW, it's clear that all the hype ("lottery pick!", "all-american", "first team big east!") has gone to his head, and he's played bad pretty much since the Temple debacle. I think he went 1 for 13 against South Florida. He's playing pretty much the whole game every game, handles the ball more than everyone else combined (he leads the nation in assists), and is directing the offense, so we kind of need him to play just a tad better than that. So that's troubling too. But he is young. He barely played his freshman year (behind two long-time starters and #4 overall pick Dion Waiters) so this is really his first year in the league. In the non-conference season, we all thought he was more than ready and capable. But he's definitely taken a step back. Can he recover? One would think so. And I have more confidence in him than fellow sophomore Christmas. But the two of them are the keys to this team becoming a national championship contender. And they're not there yet.
The veterans are playing well though. Seniors Brandon Triche and James Southerland have each stepped up and carried this team through its tougher matchups (except for Temple), while junior CJ Fair has provided steady excellence just about every game (including Temple). Triche's play over the past week has been especially impressive (Big East Player of the Week, actually) and if he has turned the corner to become the true leader and super scorer that we've all been hoping for, that will help the team incredibly for the rest of the season. And if MCW starts playing like he's capable, wow, that is tremendous guard play for the team. And with CJ and J-South playing so well, that's 4 out of 5, with only the centers as a weakness. You know, kind of like last year's team that made the Elite Eight. Actually, I think at this point Elite Eight would be an accomplishment for this squad, after losing so many veterans from last year's team to the NBA and graduation. Of course, for Orange fans, we kind of were hoping for more. Only time will tell whether MCW and Christmas can lead us to that.
On a side note, I really love the play of freshman forward Jerami Grant. He's only going to get a handful of minutes a game barring injury or foul trouble but he is going to be a star in the Syracuse system, such a perfect prototypical Hakim Warrick-style leaper. Fellow freshman Trevor Cooney has not been quite as impressive and even though he's the only backup guard on the team, he likely won't get that many minutes either, unless his shooting or ballhandling improve enough for Boeheim to trust him. Triche played all 40 minutes against South Florida and MCW played about 38 despite shooting 1 for 13. Cooney will likely have to wait until next year. But next year's team -- sans MCW (clearly leaving early) and Triche and Southerland, but gaining a top 5 recruiting class including stud point guard Tyler Ennis -- could be loaded. Fair, Grant/Christmas, Coleman/Keita, Cooney + Ennis, along with PF Tyler Roberson, C Chinonso Obokoh, SF BJ Johnson, and guard Ron Patterson. That could be yet another power. And if MCW somehow stayed... wow. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Not yet at least.