Men's Basketball

Cohen: Ups, downs of final week still leave Syracuse unpredictable

NEW YORK — The week began with a historic loss, moved 226 miles north to a setting that inspired hope, and ended with yet another debilitating defeat.

What a seven-day stretch for Syracuse, the team whose talent is abundant but whose consistency is still missing. On one end sat a 61-39 trouncing by Georgetown, the archrival that held the Orange to its lowest point total since Jim Boeheim was a freshman. Perched on the other — atop its Big East championship podium — was Louisville, the team that will receive a No. 1 seed on Sunday following a breathtaking win over Syracuse that featured an unfathomable 44-10 second-half run to humble the Orange.

And in between all that, from Wednesday through Friday, was greatness. Toughness. Grittiness. Resolve.

So what should we make of Syracuse as it enters the NCAA Tournament? Your guess is as good as mine.

What we’ve learned in the last seven days is that Syracuse can be both deadly and dreadful, simultaneously dangerous and damning. The peaks are sky high — beating Pittsburgh and Georgetown on consecutive days — while the valleys are sinkhole-esque — see the last 15 minutes of Saturday’s title game. And so as this column is published in the early hours of Selection Sunday, exactly which Syracuse will show up next week is impossible to predict.

“We played as well in New York as we ever could have hoped for,” Boeheim said. “That’s really what we thought about coming down here to try to get ourselves back on track. Obviously, those four out of five games (to end the regular season), you’re not thinking of yourself as a viable team in the NCAA Tournament.”

Viable? Yes. Reliable? No.

While the three-day winning streak over Seton Hall, Pittsburgh and Georgetown is undoubtedly impressive, it’s but a small uptick on the zig-zagging line chart that is Syracuse’s 2012-13 season. Throwing out the nonconference schedule, which featured one good win at Arkansas, one win on a boat and a loss in the very same building Syracuse lit up this week, the Orange was an up-and-down team in every sense of the cliché from January to Saturday night.

Two wins over ranked teams kicked off the heart of Big East play, followed by back-to-back losses. Then two wins, a loss, two wins, three losses — you get the idea.

What’s so fascinating about this particular team is how far apart the highs are from the lows. Syracuse was tremendous Friday night in its 58-55 win over Georgetown, the team that won the Big East regular season title. Boeheim tweaked his zone to frustrate Otto Porter, and his guards closed down Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera on the perimeter.

Roughly 24 hours later, the script was flipped. It was Rick Pitino, Boeheim’s former assistant coach, that permutated his offense to pick apart the 2-3 zone in the second half. He moved both Gorgui Dieng and Montrezl Harrell to the elbow, one on either side, and ran high-low after high-low until the Syracuse big men withered.

That alteration, combined with a seething full-court press that forced 20 turnovers, produced the most lopsided half of the season. Syracuse led 45-29 with 15:51 remaining and was outscored 49-16 the rest of the way.

“We played one bad half, and it happened to be in the championship game,” said Michael Carter-Williams, who turned the ball over four times in the second frame Saturday. “I think we just proved to a lot of people we can play with the elites. We’ve got to look at this as a positive experience. We can’t go into the NCAA Tournament being down.”

And so here lies Syracuse, a team with split personalities that appear to be interchangeable. Capable of beating anyone, but also capable of scoring just 39 points.

So much went right for the Orange this week in New York — James Southerland’s historic shooting, Brandon Triche’s resurgence, the resurfacing of Carter-Williams’ floor game, major contributions from Baye Moussa Keita and Trevor Cooney — that you wonder if it will all continue.

If any one of those things — or two, or three — fails to happen, Syracuse never snaps out of its slump and New York winds up being a continuation of last week’s disappointment.

“We had Louisville on the ropes, and we beat Georgetown — both top-five teams,” SU forward C.J. Fair said. “If we can battle with them, we can battle with anyone.”

Sure, they can do it. But will they?

Or perhaps the NCAA Tournament will be the final drop in a roller coaster season.

Michael Cohen is a staff writer at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at mjcohe02@syr.edu, or on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13. 

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