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So it’s been nearly 48 hours since the 2009-2010 Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season ended.  I needed to give myself a cooling off period before writing my final words on the season.  Thursday night’s loss to Butler was incredibly frustrating…but before we go there, let’s give the boys their due. 

This season started with moderate hopes.  The Orange figured to be fighting for an NCAA tournament birth at the end of the season…an experience with which Syracuse University supporters are all to familiar.  But the season started and we quickly learned that this squad was much better than expected.  In sensational back-to-back evenings in mid-November the Orange dominated Cal and UNC to win the 2k Sports Classic.  We also discovered early that Wes Johnson was an incredible addition to the team.  The transfer’s athleticism, rebounding and shooting ability brought pure excitement.

Syracuse entered 2010 undefeated.  They would quickly lose though, during the second day of the new year at the Carrier Dome to Pittsburgh.  They would then regroup and win their next 11 games.  We watched Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson mature before our eyes.  All three became the players we could not have imagined they’d be.

This team was selfless and hard-working and having fun.  They ascended to a #1 ranking – the first time Syracuse had done so in 20 years.  What more could you ask for? 

Two late season losses and a first round exit (officially quarterfinals) from the Big East tournament cast doubt on this squad that had defied the odds.  As a result they were chosen as the fourth #1 seed in the NCAA tournament instead of the third #1 seed as expected.

But faith was restored on the first weekend of the Big Dance when the Orange safely eliminated Vermont in the first round and then blitzed Gonzaga in the second round even without the services of Arinze Onuaku.  The team we knew was back and so was Wes Johnson, apparently healed from the many injuries he had been battling.  He scored 31 points against the Bulldogs, pulled down 14 rebounds and dominated the beginning of the game.

Unfortunately it was not meant to be, as on Thursday night in Salt Lake City the Orange played their worst game of the year.  They looked like a bunch of nervous teenagers on the floor.  They threw the ball all over the place, they hurried shots and with the exception of a stretch in the second half they were not hustling on defense the way they had for most of the season.

Who’s to blame?  For me the answer is the coaching staff.  Here’s why:

1/ The players did not look ready to play in the first half.  It is the responsibility of the coaching staff to make sure that doesn’t happen.  All people are motivated by different things and the same is true for teams.  Whether it’s a “win one for the Gipper speech,” calm encouragement or individual pep talks, coaches need to know what their players respond to and certainly employ those tactics in the biggest games of the year.

2/ The players did not look prepared to play against Butler’s suffocating man-to-man defense.  They should have been completely prepped for that by the coaches.  There is no excuse for the players not being able to respond to Butler’s defense.  Syracuse plays in the Big East, they face teams that play that type of defense at least once a week if not twice a week during the regular season.

3/ The younger players do not receive enough in-game development.  Would it really hurt the team to go nine or ten deep and give some of the younger, depth players five minutes each a game?  With Arinze Onuaku going down this weakness was glaring.  DaShonte Riley was really not ready to play meaningful minutes.  He was just out there during the Gonzaga game and was pulled as soon as possible during the Butler game.  I love what Rick Jackson was able to do this year but let’s be honest, his play was awful against Butler.  He really hurt the team.  Kris Joseph was a ghost in that game.  In fact he wasn’t much better in the Gonzaga game.  He scored 11 points total in the last two games.  But was there really a single option to replace either of those guys?  No.  And why?  Because they were never developed.

Being that this is my last planned entry, I do want to thank the players that we will  no longer see wearing orange who made a sizable contribution while playing for Syracuse – Andy Rautins, Wes Johnson and Arinze Onuaku.  It was a pleasure to watch you gentlemen play.  And I also want to say that I am really looking forward to the offseason progress and watching the 2010-2011 team take the floor.

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This game really felt like three games in one.  The Orange got off to a hot start and were up 24-11 less than six minutes into the game.  Then the Friars got strong three point shooting and the Syracuse defensive intensity dropped, resulting in Providence charging ahead to an eight point lead just after halftime.  In the third, and final, stanza the Orange stepped it back up on both sides of the ball, got a big lead with 10 minutes left in the game and cruised from there until the end.  Some interesting tidbits from the box score:

  • Whether it was bad defense or the result of a few hot hands, both teams really tickled the twine from behind the three point line.  The Orange were 10-21.  Most of the credit goes to Andy Rautins who was 8 for 12 from three point range.  Providence was 14-33 or 42.4%.  As always, Syracuse showed that they can be susceptible to a hot three point shooting team.  That’s just the risk you take playing a 2-3 zone.
  • The Orange were impressive on the boards, winning the total battle 37-24, and pulling in 17 offensive rebounds to the Friars’ 8.
  • Syracuse took care of the ball better in this game with a reasonable 12 turnovers.
  • Besides Andy Rautins and his hot shooting, huge props go to stat sheet stuffer Rick Jackson who had 28 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks.  He shot 13 of 17 from the field.

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Wow…what a game.  As good as the Orange looked in the first half, they looked just as bad in the second half.  Of course the officiating was ridiculously uneven as well.  As usual box score analysis shows some keys to the game:

  • I don’t think I’d believe it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.  Syracuse shot 90% from the free throw line, making 27 out of their 30 shots.  That was huge.
  • The Orange also made eight of their 15 three point shots.  The Hoyas shot a cold 20% behind the three point arc, 5-20.
  • Andy Rautins and Wesley Johnson played big.  Rautins had 26 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists.  Johnson had 16 points 8 rebounds 5 blocks and 3 assists.
  • Why was it so close in the end?  The Orange shot a dreadful 33% in the second half and had 18 turnovers in the game.  Turnovers are really starting to be a problem for this team.

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