It's been a while since Syracuse basketball has been bad. And by bad, I mean, 22 win seasons, scraping into the tournament or even just missing the tourney. Which is not actually bad but not the greatness we've come to associate with Syracuse basketball under Jim Boeheim. In recent years, we've gotten #1 seeds in the tourney (twice) and the only question for this year, for much of the year, was whether we could actually make the Final Four or squabbling over whether a 1 or 2 seed was our destination. But then, with a shocking suddenness that no one can claim to have predicted, this year's team has devolved into bad, like real bad. Like scoring 39 points against Georgetown bad. 39 points in the entire game. Lowest ever for a Jim Boeheim team. And just a month ago we were thinking 2 seed. What the fuck happened?
The short answer is, this team was probably never very good. The loss of James Southerland for a few games in late January exposed the lack of outside shooting on the team (other than Southerland) and teams in the Big East who scouted them a lot better than teams in the pre-conference schedule realized that the best way to play a team that can't shoot for shit from outside was to pack themselves into a Syracuse-style zone and stifle the offense. It's worked. Wonderfully. And every opponent since has thrown zones at us and the scoring continues to suffer. What was once a high-flying team running up and down the court with steals and assists and a rhythm on offense thriving under sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams is now a grind-it-out disaster that is kept in most games solely because of our defense. And that defense can no longer carry this horrendous excuse for an offense any longer. What went wrong? And more importantly, can it be fixed?
The short answer is, unlikely. The longer answer is not unless Southerland gets blazing hot from three in a game. This team has first round NCAA exit written all over it. Not good times. Carter-Williams has been bad pretty much the entirety of the Big East season. Whether it's the hype that greeted his pre-conference play ("lottery pick") or just the tougher way that Big East opponents have harassed him and forced him into a style of play he's not comfortable with, I don't know. But he hasn't been good. He actually played decently against G'Town at times, but still didn't have many assists and had a bunch of turnovers and that didn't help against the stifling defense. MCW hasn't been the best player on the team since December, and I don't think that MCW is coming back. So that's pretty bad. The best player on the team has clearly been CJ Fair, but even he is struggling with shooting his mid-range jumper and he definitely is not a "take over the game" type player so when the rest of his teammates aren't creating shot opportunities for him, he ends up forcing shots and they aren't falling. And again, he's been the best player since December.
The other two "stars" of the team -- Brandon Triche and James Southerland -- are most responsible for the collapse of the team this past month. Triche has been here four years and at times this season really stepped up and carried the team (particularly when MCW has struggled). But he's been just godawful lately. He can't make a bucket of any range from anywhere on the court and you can tell it's gotten into his head. He's making turnovers and forcing shots and doing things that are so unlike him it's scary but when he's chucking airballs from three, you're pretty much dealing with uncharted territory for him. Southerland hasn't been as bad for as long but Triche's poor shooting has rubbed off on him and although he'd been doing his best to score from places other than outside (at least until Georgetown), the team desperately needs him to make some fucking outside shots. And he's almost as lost as Triche out there right now. It's all a downward spiral for the whole team, it seems. They've lost confidence as a group and no one can step up anymore because there's no one left to step up. These four players are the ones who needed to carry us this season and 3/4 of them are playing absolutely terrible or worse. Not good. Fans on the boards complain about the lack of offense from the center slot and Rakeem Christmas's disappointing season but the team was winning with the same shitty center play all season long. And that won't get better. But if the Big Four can somehow regain their form, there is still hope. Yet watching them play on Saturday didn't leave me with much hope at all.
One last thing -- Boeheim. He's going down with his guys. Freshman Grant, who played like a budding star in Southerland's absence in January -- even playing 40 minutes in one game I think, is barely sniffing the floor anymore. Even with Southerland shooting so poorly. Grant hasn't played well in his limited minutes so it's tough to argue with Boeheim's choice her,e but it is puzzling. Trevor Cooney, the only backup guard, is still not getting a whole lot of minutes, even with MCW and Triche's struggles, but again, he's not exactly lighting it up from outside so you have to think that Boeheim knows this team is only going to win if Triche, Southerland, and Carter-Williams are playing like they are capable. And he's riding that horse until it dies, apparently. What's even more troubling is as bad as they've been, those three players are going to be gone next year and the cupboard suddenly looks very bare. MCW should stay -- he's nowhere near ready for the NBA -- but if his draft stock hasn't collapsed with his play of late, he's gone. And Triche and Southerland are seniors. CJ Fair will be back and be a senior, but Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant are going to have to step right into starting roles from the start, along with freshman guard Tyler Ennis, most likely, and the same 3-headed center monster as this year. On paper that team looks a hell of a lot worse than this one (Cooney and Grant are not playing now and the team stinks). Unless Ennis is the second coming of Sherman Douglas, this spring's collapse could foreshadow another down year in the Carrier Dome. Fuck.