We seem to go through this every season, don't we? Super team ranked in the top 5 suddenly has to deal with losing a key member that had the team ranked so highly. And I'm not going to mince words here, if James Southerland's ineligibility issues are anything like what dogged Fab Melo last year, we're fucking screwed. Fab, if you remember, missed three games in January (just like now), supposedly got cleared of the academic issues before the second semester started, then continued to not go to class (allegedly) and got declared ineligible on the eve of the NCAA tournament, damning the #2 ranked team in the country to an Elite Eight loss to Ohio State (when Jared Sullinger feasted on our inside defense without Fab). Now there's word that James Southerland, this year's 2nd leading scorer and best outside threat, is ineligible, likely due to academic issues since the 2nd semester started yesterday at Syracuse. I don't know if he can make up the time like Fab did since school is back in session, but if he misses 3 games and then comes back, that's the best case scenario I think, even if it means we're without him against Louisville this Saturday. Hell, if he needs to miss a bunch of games but can still be back for the stretch run and the NCAA tournament, it's not the worst thing in the world. But if he misses the NCAAs and we are without a key contributor for the 3rd out of the last 4 years (Arinze Onuaku got injured on the eve of the tournament when the team was a 1-seed in 2010), then, well, fuck. We seem to be fucked. Royally fucking fucked.
How does this happen? How does this keep happening? By all accounts, Southerland is a smart enough kid and a senior so how does he lapse into ineligibility? And how does Boeheim not having anyone on staff to monitor every fucking grade in every fucking class for these kids? Especially since it fucking happened last year!! We don't know the facts -- and likely we never will, due to privacy issues -- so I can't judge Southerland or the potential lack of accountability in Boeheim's program too harshly, but yeah, this sucks.
The team gutted out a sloppy game against Villanova on Saturday without Southerland and with Brandon Triche on the bench for most of the 2nd half with four fouls, coming away with a win due mainly to outstanding defense and the play of the only veteran left in the game -- junior forward CJ Fair, who scored 17 of his 22 in the 2nd half. And the freshmen who will be needed to step up in Southerland's absence all did, at certain points, with swingman Jerami Grant the most impressive. But can they really replace Southerland? That's highly doubtful. No one has that good of an outside shot on the team. Brandon Triche scores the most 3-pointers besides Southerland but he's an average outside shooter at best and I'd much rather he get into the lane where his strength over other guards gives him the best chance to score. I'd also rather he not get four fouls with 16 minutes left and the only other senior ineligible but that's another story. Freshman Trevor Cooney may be counted on to supplement Southerland's three-point shooting but he's been downright bad from beyond the arc this season -- shooting well below 30% before hitting two clutch 3's late in the game on Saturday. He has ability, definitely, and his hustle and defense while his shot isn't falling are laudable, but his minutes would come in place of Triche and Michael Carter-Williams, not Southerland, so I still don't see a huge role for him there (maybe 10 minutes a game, which are tough to get in rhythm and make a bunch of long range shots). So losing Southerland's 3-point prowess just cannot be replaced, even as he's struggled quite a bit from beyond the arc recently.
There is a chance that the rest of the game might not suffer without Southerland, though. His defense was much improved this year, but he's still anything but a strong defender, and although he's developed a nice midrange game and can fill the lane on the break, again those aren't his strengths so they are replaceable. Do we have anyone to replace them? Well the obvious answer is Jerami Grant, who played 28 minutes against Villanova and played quite well. Grant is extremely aggressive and kind of fearless getting to the rim and putting up shots. His defense is good not great, which is to be expected for a freshman, but he definitely has the ability to improve as his playing time skyrockets without Southerland. He's certainly a better athlete than James, likely can rebound better, and likely can score better around the rim. He won't make too many outside shots -- and you really don't want him taking any -- but he could be a nice replacement for James. It kills the depth of the team tremendously but if James comes back -- and let's hope he does, let's really hope he does -- this experience for Grant could prove priceless.
The other player whose minutes shot up was DaJuan Coleman, freshman center and heretofore project, who played about 15 minutes, most of them with Rakeem Christmas in as well, taking over the power forward slot. I don't like that combination so much -- it's the starting lineup but Boeheim usually yanks Coleman within a couple minutes, it's just not effective since Christmas doesn't really have an offensive game outside of around the rim so when Coleman's in, taking up space around the middle, Christmas basically disappears on offense. And defensively he's just not quick enough to cover the wing, not nearly as quick as Southerland. Plus, that lineup forces CJ Fair into the "3" role, which he's not particularly well-suited for, since his midrange game plays better when the middle is relatively open and Southerland and the two guards are outside. Of course, CJ played great when Grant was in there in the 2nd half and Grant has a similar "inside/midrange" game. Coleman definitely is going to have to play more, if only because I don't see Grant playing significantly more than 28 minutes and there's just no one else to take up the playing time slack. DC2 has some decent offensive moves (more than Christmas) but isn't up to Christmas's defensive ability inside the zone and it basically all comes back around to this team being much better off if James Southerland is playing.
So we'll see what happens with the eligibility situation. This may be minor. This may be major. This may be cataclysmic. Without him, this is still a good team and one of the best in the Big East. But not a national contender. With him, I still think we could go all the way. Please, James, please get eligible if there's anything you can do. And if you do, don't fuck us right before the tournament like Fab did. That is all.