Bailey: Slumping Syracuse will need to defy history to make NCAA Tournament run
Chase Gaewski | Managing Editor
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Trevor Cooney hunched forward on his stool, answering each question more quietly than the last. Behind him, B.J. Johnson hid in his locker, towel draped over his head as teammates slowly walked by to check who was under it.
The “3 2 1” posters that hung between each locker, representing the victories needed to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, were left unmarked.
The scene played on for about 20 minutes after Syracuse was upset by North Carolina State in the quarterfinals Friday — the low point for a team that only weeks ago was riding the best start in program history.
But head coach Jim Boeheim took a different stance. The same one he has through the Orange’s 2-5 slide leading into the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m not concerned about our team,” Boeheim said. “I think we played well all year. I think we struggle shooting it. I think that’s pretty well documented. But in spite of that, we won 27 games.
“And I believe that we’ll be a very good Tournament team.”
No. 3-seed Syracuse (27-5, 14-4 ACC) will begin its NCAA Tournament against No. 14-seed Western Michigan (23-9, 14-4 Mid-American) in Buffalo on Thursday at approximately 2:45 p.m. Disastrous finish considered, the Orange still won more games than 95.4 percent of Division-I teams. Its zone defense is still one of the most effective in the country and its lineup still boasts two potential NBA Draft lottery picks in Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant.
But does that make it a team fit to make a deep run in the Big Dance?
Some argue experience and guard play makes an elite contender in March (the Orange has that). Others push for defense and rebounding (those come and go for SU). Others still emphasize late-game efficiency (what is that again?).
But if history tells us anything, momentum is the most important factor.
No team to lose its first conference tournament game has ever won the NCAA Tournament. And no team to even make the Final Four in the last five years has entered the tournament slumping this poorly.
“On any given night, we could lose to any team,” SU point guard Tyler Ennis said, “but we could also beat any team. We’ve just got to get our confidence back.”
Offensively, the Orange has turned from a balanced and powerful unit to a group of players running very predictable sets.
The double-baseline screens that used to free Cooney aren’t connecting on defenders. The isolation plays that C.J. Fair relied on to burn defenders earlier in the season are leading to air balls and turnovers. And the post moves Rakeem Christmas flashed at times through the year have disappeared.
In the team’s first 25 games, it shot 45.4 percent from the field. In its last seven, it’s shot 38.2 percent. And its leading scorer, Fair, has shot just 36 percent in the team’s five losses. He shot 3-of-16, making just one non-dunk, in SU’s loss to the Wolfpack.
“Every game I take the normal shots I usually take,” Fair said. “And today was one of those nights where I couldn’t really get going.”
To make the Final Four run that Fair targeted last week, the Orange can’t afford another dud from its star senior.
Especially because while SU is backing into the Big Dance, its regional foes are not. No. 6-seed and potential Round of 32 opponent Ohio State won three straight before nearly upsetting Michigan in the Big 10 tournament. No. 2-seed Kansas could be getting Joel Embiid back for the Sweet 16. And No. 1-seed Florida and No. 4-seed UCLA, the likely Elite Eight matchup, are coming off conference tournament championships.
“The season’s not over,” SU guard Michael Gbinije said, “and that’s something that us as players realized and coach just said. We have more games ahead of us.”
The Orange has all the pieces to turn it around. The same players that went 25-0 are still here and healthy for the most part.
But right now Syracuse is not a good Tournament team. And unless something changes, the season could be over as soon as this weekend.
Stephen Bailey is the sports editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Stephen_Bailey1
Published on March 17, 2014 at 12:24 am