Four Thoughts: Syracuse vs. Notre Dame EditionPosted by mlemaire on January 23rd, 2012
Game recaps are boring. If you want to read them, search your local newspaper or the Associated Press. Four Thoughts is our brand new, not-so creatively titled feature where, in lieu of a game recap, we give you (in this case a belated) four thoughts about key Big East action. Enjoy!
1. Fab Melo would have helped Syracuse, but he is not the reason they lost.
The former-five-star recruit turned serviceable offensive center and excellent rim-protector has been one of the key reasons why Syracuse has enjoyed so much success this season. When we learned that Melo would not travel to South Bend for Saturday’s tilt with the Fighting Irish, everyone knew the Orange would not be as effective, but even if he had played, there is little chance ‘Cuse could have pulled out a win in this one. Jim Boeheim‘s club finished with just two blocks and was outrebounded 37-24, which shows that the primary effects of Melo’s absence were felt where we expected them to be felt — around the rim and on the glass. But the reason the Orange lost is because they couldn’t shoot the ball effectively, and they basically let Notre Dame have open shots whenever the Fighting Irish wanted them. Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters went a combined 8-26 from the field, including 3-11 from behind the arc, and Notre Dame shot an efficient 50 percent from the floor and from behind the three-point line. To be blunt, you don’t win games that way.
2. Despite this bad loss, Syracuse is still the best team in the Big East by a wide margin.
The silver lining behind the fact that the Orange shot just 34% from the field is that they probably won’t shoot that poorly again this season. For the season, the team’s effective field-goal percentage is still 53.5%, which is good for 34th-best in the country. Waiters and Joseph are streaky shooters, but they are much better than they showed on Saturday. Before we start calling ‘Cuse overrated we should also consider their schedule. South Bend is not an inviting place to play, and the Fighting Irish had lost just one home game all season entering Saturday. And, when you look closer at the schedule, this was really Syracuse’s first true road test (unless you count trips to Villanova, DePaul, or Providence… which we don’t). That isn’t a good excuse, especially if your team expects to contend for the National Championship, but I would be willing to bet that the team plays much better on the road the rest of the season. I am not a believer in the idea of a “good loss” because I don’t believe you learn any more about your team in a loss than you do in a win, but this does relieve some of the pressure that was on the players. Not only had they been dealing with the continued fallout of the Bernie Fine scandal, but they were also feeling the pressure of having an undefeated record. Now they don’t need to worry about that anymore and they can just concentrate on winning a title.
3. Let’s give it up for Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley, one of the most improved players in the conference, if not the country.
We love silver linings around here so we might as well stay with the trend and say that while nothing about star forward Tim Abromaitis getting injured was fortuitous for Notre Dame or Abromaitis, it has given Cooley an opportunity to step up and become an impact player. Of course the two probably would have played well together, but with Abromaitis unable to take shots, Cooley has been forced to become a more important part of the offense and he has responded better than anyone could have expected. Last season Cooley averaged 10.3 minutes per game, barely ever shot the ball, and didn’t look particularly aggressive going after rebounds. Now he is the team’s third-leading scorer (10.7 PPG), leading rebounder (8.4 RPG, 5th in the Big East) and he has even used his 6-foot-9 frame to become a serviceable shot-blocker (1.4 BPG, 9th in the Big East). Just one glance and it is obvious that Cooley won’t beat you with his impressive athleticism, but he does have an excellent basketball I.Q. and doesn’t take many bad shots (3rd in the conference in field-goal percentage at 58.7%). He hustles, he rebounds, and he scores when he is asked to, and his emergence is one of the main reasons why Notre Dame still has a shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
4. That said, even despite the impressive win, Notre Dame will not make the NCAA Tournament.
At this rate, having already lost eight games, including ugly losses to Georgia and Maryland, coach Mike Brey‘s team has already firmly entrenched themselves as a bubble team. They have one marquee win (Saturday) and one nice resume win (over Louisville in double overtime) and a number of opportunities left on the schedule to improve that resume, but it will be tough sledding. First, the only way they will start consistently winning the remaining games on their schedule is if they get consistent play out of their talented backcourt. Unfortunately for them, mercurial guards Eric Atkins and Jerami Grant are supremely talented, but too inconsistent to be expected to put the team on their backs down the stretch. Senior forward Scott Martin has picked up his game of late, and Cooley is a steady presence on the interior, but neither of those players are good enough to make up the scoring difference if Atkins and Grant are shooting poorly. Let’s be clear, the fact that Notre Dame is even in the discussion for a NCAA Tournament spot after the attrition from last season and the loss of Abromaitis is a testament to the coaching ability of Brey and the resilience and competitiveness of his young and inexperienced team. But even though Saturday’s win proved that the Fighting Irish will be a handful for any opponent the rest of the season, I just don’t think they have enough pieces to make a stretch run.