Can Syracuse Still Win the Big East Without James Southerland?Posted by mlemaire on February 6th, 2013
We won’t know for sure whether James Southerland‘s season is done or not until Friday but there are some who feel that allegations that Southerland had a tutor write his term papers will be too much for the university to overlook and Southerland’s Syracuse career will come to an ignominious end. At first the Orange didn’t seem to be affected by Southerland’s absence, continuing their winning streak and rising to the top of the conference standings. But in the last two weeks Syracuse has looked vulnerable and back-to-back losses to Villanova and Pittsburgh have left the Orange just a half-game ahead of Marquette, causing some fans to wonder whether the lack of Southerland’s scoring punch and defense are finally catching up to Jim Boeheim‘s club.
The team got back to its winning ways with an easy home rout of Notre Dame on Monday but in the long-term the question remains — can Syracuse win what is sure to be a hotly contested Big East title race without the services of their senior sixth-man? The team obviously remains in excellent position as the schedule heads into the home stretch but the team also has four games against ranked opponents left on the schedule and can ill-afford a regression to mediocrity at this point. But is Southerland’s absence really the difference-maker for the Orange, or are the team’s struggles rooted in something else?
The lazy observation is to point to Southerland’s 13.6 points per game average and 46th-best offensive efficiency rating and assume that the Orange really miss his skill-set and ability to stretch the floor on the offensive end. But when you actually sit down and crunch the numbers (as someone else did for me) you will see that Syracuse’s offense (at least as of the Pittsburgh game) has actually been more efficient without Southerland and most of the individual numbers show that the players — with perhaps the important exception of point guard Michael Carter-Williams — have been more efficient without Southerland on the floor as well.
Where the team misses Southerland the most is on the defensive end because his length, experience, and underrated ability to block shots and create steals. With Southerland in the lineup the Orange had one of the most efficient defenses in the entire country. but without him, their efficiency slips out of the top-50 and becomes rather ordinary. There is no doubt Syracuse would welcome back Southerland’s three-pointing shooting and his ability to create offense without creating turnovers, but the real reason they would want him back is because he is a more impactful defender than C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, or Trevor Cooney on the wing.
Perhaps the biggest issue and certainly the most difficult to quantify is the effect the increased responsibility and playing time will have on key players on the stretch. At the beginning of January, Grant played eight minutes and two minutes against South Florida and Providence respectively but he has played all 40 minutes in the team’s two most-recent games. Fair has always been a key contributor but RealGM points out that he has played 99 percent of the minutes since Southerland was suspended which can be a grind for even the most well-conditioned athletes.
Heavy minutes has become all-too-familiar with for essential backcourt duo of Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, but both have seen a small spike in the percentage of possessions they use, which is not always a good thing. Triche has made the most of his five-percent increase in possessions used and become a more efficient offensive player, but he is just 13-of-41 (31%) in his last three games and it is fair to ask whether he can maintain that offensive efficiency with increased focus from opposing defenders. Carter-Williams has seen a seven-percent increase in his possessions usage and while he remains one of the best players in the conference, he has lost some of his efficiency as he looks for his own shot more often.
Southerland provided depth and experience as much as he provided offense and defense and it seems fair to question whether Boeheim’s seven-man rotation will be able to hold up in March. But it does seem like even without Southerland, the team has enough firepower to win the conference. The real potential hindrance is the defense. Defensive struggles could just be the result of a small sample size in the middle of the season, but assuming they are more indicative of Syracuse’s true defensive efficiency without Southerland, does that mean that Syracuse can’t win the Big East?
Well, no, primarily because Syracuse has already put itself in an excellent spot for contending for the conference crown and because the team’s still-elite offense will be able to mask any defensive issues against most of their remaining opponents. The issue will be if they advance deep into the tournament because different research shows that, from 2003-2012, only two teams ranked worse than 50th in defensive efficiency have ever made the Final Four and the Orange’s current defensive efficiency without Southerland would have them tied with Providence for 72nd nationally.
Basically, the Orange have enough talent and ability to still win the Big East, especially since there are no contenders separating themselves from the pack. But if they expect to make a run in March and reach the Final Four, they better hope Southerland makes a good impression on Friday.