Syracuse At #1 — Get Used to It, the Orange is Likely to be There a While…Posted by rtmsf on December 19th, 2011
Matt Poindexter is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Syracuse win at NC State Saturday night.
“We’re talking about a team that could be playing on Monday night in April.”
North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried had just watched the top-ranked Syracuse Orange run away from his Wolfpack, winning 88-72 in Raleigh. The Orange, though, only looked like a national title contender for about twenty minutes on Saturday. Halfway through the first half, NC State — a team in the bottom half of the ACC that will struggle to make the NCAA Tournament — led by seven. By halftime, the Orange were up by fourteen, and at one point had peeled off a blistering 23-0 run in the RBC Center. The second half was a similar affair: a 17-3 Wolfpack blast in the first five minutes, and NC State within a possession with eight minutes to play. But when Gottfried’s best weapon, CJ Leslie, went to the locker room with cramps, Jim Boeheim’s deep bench overwhelmed the Wolfpack’s less-talented substitutes. The Orange won the game to keep its top ranking, but did so in an oddly uneven manner.
During Syracuse’s 23-0 run, Basketball Prospectus author John Gasaway tweeted, “If you yelled at me for saying Syracuse will be No. 1 for a while please turn on ESPN2.” When polls came out last Monday with the Orange on top, the feeling that Syracuse was first only by default was prevalent, especially given that Ohio State’s loss at Kansas came without the aid of its superstar big man, Jared Sullinger. More illuminating than a ten-minute stretch against an NIT-caliber team, though, is a look at Syracuse’s upcoming schedule. The Orange have eleven home games and nine road games left before the Big East Tournament starts, and there is a reasonable chance the Orange can make it to Madison Square Garden in March with a goose egg in the loss column.
While eight of their remaining games will be against top-50 competition, only two of those will occur outside the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome. The Orange will play two more non-conference games this month, both at home against cannon fodder schools they should rout easily. Their Big East schedule, usually a grueling January and February with nine away games against some of the best teams in the nation, is surprisingly short on visits to high-caliber opponents in 2012. Seton Hall, Marquette, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Georgetown — all possible tournament teams — make trips to Syracuse without the Orange reciprocating this year. Instead of hearing from the Oakland Zoo or rabid West Virginia crowds for forty minutes, Syracuse will make visits to six less than formidable opponents for their road-only Big East matchups. They include trips to the perennially bad pair of DePaul and Providence, the shaky programs of Villanova, Notre Dame, St. John’s, and Rutgers, and a stop with a Cincinnati team that is devolving into chaos at the moment. As much as Jim Boeheim gets hammered for Syracuse’s lack of rigorous road tests, this isn’t his fault: Notre Dame and Villanova look bad for the first time in a decade, and Cincinnati seems determined to self-destruct. If Syracuse can take care of their home slate — no easy task — they should end up with only two road games of any difficulty: trips to Louisville and Connecticut in February.
Saturday’s performance against NC State showed that Syracuse is both supremely talented and rather imperfect. Major conference opponents have been lights-out from beyond the arc against Jim Boeheim’s trusted 2-3 zone defense, and front lines that can hit jumpers from the foul line should find open space in the middle of the zone. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Orange are also atrocious defensive rebounders. The good news for Jim Boeheim is that Syracuse can be less than dominant and Mark Gottfried can still be right about considering the Orange’s odds to play on the evening of April 2, 2012. Connecticut and Butler proved last year that teams can be less than great during the regular season and still make it to the final game. Even if they are first by default right now, Syracuse is a team that will likely strengthen significantly as the season wears on. We’re 11 games into the schedule and only one of Jim Boeheim’s players (Kris Joseph) is averaging more than 25 minutes a game while 10 players are seeing regular minutes, in stark contrast to previous years.
Given that this year’s version may be a deeper team than Jim Boeheim’s had in some time, playing a schedule that’s weaker than in years past, college basketball fans should warm to the possibility of a small “1” next to “SYRACUSE” for a good while.