Modest Expectations
by Matt Michael - Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
Boeheim says SU hoopsters will have a hard time matching last season

After the Syracuse University men’s basketball team’s lackluster victory over Cornell Nov. 8, Coach Jim Boeheim had a few choice words for media members who had the audacity to predict that SU could make another Final Four run this season.

“I think the height of foolishness is to think we’re going to win like 29 games and lose two or something like that,” Boeheim said. “When you lose those two guys {guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche} and you’re playing with a freshman guard and a sophomore guard who didn’t play last year, I don’t know what people see.”

“Maybe I don’t know basketball, I guess,” Boeheim continued. “And {we lost} James Southerland, who’s on an NBA roster. And we’re going to be that much better? I mean, what do you guys watch?”

Boeheim was asked if he would prefer media members to downplay his team.

“I would like to have people be realistic,” he said. “I think I like that better. It’s like people who buy the lottery tickets, that’s what they’re like. They buy lottery tickets and think they’re going to win. I mean, c’mon. How can you lose those players and think you’re going to be better? That’s just unbelievable. That’s absurd. That’s why I don’t make predictions. I don’t want to be that foolish.”

It was a classic Boeheim rant: directed at the media–and, in this case, the millions of people who buy lottery tickets–but with the intent of letting his players know that this is a new season and they’ve got a long way to go to equal last season’s 30-win team.

Now that the Orange has dispatched Cornell, Fordham, Colgate and St. Francis Brooklyn in its first four games of the season at the Carrier Dome, we should start to get a better idea if Boeheim was right or just blowing smoke. The competition level is about to go up significantly for the 4-0 Orange, which last week was ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press Poll and No. 7 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.

On Monday, Nov. 25, the Orange will play Minnesota in the second round of the EA Sports Maui Invitational in Hawaii (technically, the St. Francis Brooklyn game was a first-round game). If the Orange beats Minnesota, it’ll play the winner of the second-round game between California, which was ranked No. 30 in the ESPN/USA Today poll (in others receiving votes), and Arkansas. If it reaches the championship game–the Orange has won the championship both times it has played in this tournament–SU will likely face No. 15 Gonzaga or No. 23 Baylor.

“We’re all aware,” freshman guard Tyler Ennis says, “that the competition level rises when we get to Maui.”

After the Maui Invitational, the Orange will return home to face Indiana (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today and No. 28 AP) on Dec. 3, and it also has St. John’s, Villanova and Eastern Michigan on its non-conference schedule in December. While none of those teams is Duke or North Carolina (they’ll come later), the Orange will lose to one or two of them if it doesn’t play better and more consistently than it did against Cornell, Colgate and Fordham.

“It’s just a process, and we realize we’re a good team, but we’re not where we need to be right now,” says sophomore guard Michael Gbinije. “We have to change and fix a couple of small things, but I think we’re going to have a good season this year, and we’ll be ready when that time comes {to face better competition}.”

Against Cornell, which is picked to finish near the bottom of the Ivy League, the Orange trailed 36-22 late in the first half. The Big Red’s Nolan Cressler, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who averaged 9.3 points per game last season, had 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting in the first half.

SU tightened its defense in the second half against Cornell and the first half against Fordham Nov. 12, but the Rams outscored SU 53-43 in the second half as 6-foot-3 senior guard Branden Frazier exploded for a career-high 33 points on 9-for-14 shooting.

The Orange looked sluggish against Colgate Nov. 16, in large part because the Raiders routinely ran the shot clock down to a few seconds before taking their shots. The Orange went on a 15-0 run after starting to press late in the first half, but aside from that three-minute spurt the Raiders played SU almost even.

Boeheim wasn’t too worried about Colgate’s 11-for-28 performance from 3-point range. “When a team has three or four good three-point shooters and they spend the whole game trying to shoot threes, they’re going to make some,” he says.

But he was concerned about SU’s dismal shooting against the Raiders: 25-of 68 (37 percent) overall, 7-for-24 (29 percent) from beyond the arc, and 12-for-28 (43 percent) from the foul line.

“You can’t miss 16 free throws. We missed three dunks, and we missed three other layups,” Boeheim said. “You have to capitalize on those things.”

There are other red flags. ACC Preseason Player of the Year C.J. Fair led the team in scoring after three games (21.7 points per game), but had committed 15 turnovers. The team’s big men (Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman and Baye Moussa Keita) failed to take advantage of their size against the smaller frontcourts of Cornell, Fordham and Colgate. And will Jerami Grant’s free-throw shooting (6-for-15 after three games) prevent him from being a scoring option late in games?

Boeheim repeatedly called the first four games a “learning experience” for his team that’s relying on a freshman point guard (Ennis), two sophomore guards (Trevor Cooney and Gbinije) and two sophomore forwards (Grant and Coleman) among its top eight players.

Starting next week, we’ll start to get a better idea whether it would be smarter to buy a Final Four ticket or a lottery ticket.

“We have a long way to go. We have a lot of work to do,” Boeheim said after the Colgate game. “That’s a hardworking group. They are trying to figure it out. We will see how we improve as we go along.”

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