Friday, March 26, 2010

Requiem for a 30-win team

I've lived and died with Syracuse basketball since I was 11 and last night's bonk is one of the tougher losses to handle.

In the early 80s, Syracuse was in the shadow of Georgetown and St. John's, even after landing Pearl Washington, the most noted recruit Boeheim had landed to that point. By 1985, St. John's had made the Final Four, Villanova had won its miracle title, and Georgetown was the top team in the conference with three Final Fours and a title. SU did itself no favors in the first post-Ewing era season by choking its second round NCAA game to Navy 97-85 at the Carrier Dome -- it couldn't defend David Robinson and couldn't rattle the Navy guards even though SU had whipped the seamen by 22 earlier in the year. So SU was now a choker and, despite the run to the Final in '87 and the heartbreaking loss to Indiana, that label stuck as SU, with a hobbled Sherman Douglas bonked to Rhode Island in round two in '88.

But SU could recruit thanks to the huge Carrier Dome crowds and its run-and-gun style with fast break lobs flying in from all angles. In the 80s, Boeheim pulled in Stevie Thompson from California, Rony Seikaly from Lebanon, Derrick Coleman from Michigan, David Johnson from Louisiana, and the biggest prize, Billy Owens. The Coleman/Douglas teams made a Final Four and a Final Eight and the first post-Douglas team made a Sweet 16 only to lose to a riotously hot-shooting Minnesota (75% in second half).

Two incidents knocked Syracuse from a perennial national power and top 10 team with top recruits to a top 25 team that had to do more with less. First, the 1990-91 season. Without Coleman, Owens dominated the Big East (23 ppg, 11+ rpg) and carried the Orangemen to a 25-4 record. It was one of Boeheim's best coaching jobs and it ended in disaster -- allowing a 23-5 run by Villanova to beat SU 70-68 in the first round of the Big East tourney and then losing as a #2 seed to 15th-seeded Richmond, which loss is still one of the most famous honks in NCAA Tourney history.

Second, the Conrad McRae recruitment. Boosters tied to SU, NOT BOEHEIM, violated NCAA rules and the hint of probation scared off Donyell Marshall and Jalen Rose. SU's fall from grace (probation in '92-93) and the Richmond debacle took a toll: from 1992 until Carmelo Anthony signed his letter of intent, SU had one McDonald's All-American. That one, John Wallace, led the team on its improbable 1996 run to the national title game -- a Tournament performance that revived Boeheim's reputation as a coach, which (after the 91-92 team won 22 with smoke, mirrors, Johnson and Moten, and the '92-'93 team played hard and well despite probation) shouldn't have needed reviving.

That Tournament run also cemented The Zone. The '96 team's lack of quickness in the backcourt made it a poor man-to-man defensive team, so Boeheim used the 2-3 zone almost exclusively instead of mixing defenses as he had previously done. The Zone was a story in the Tournament. And The Zone became the SU staple thereafter.

Since the probation and 1996 renaissance, SU is a program that now levels out as a top Big East contender on a fairly regular basis (1998, 2000, 2003, 2010 -- won at least a share of regular season title; 2005, 2006 Big East tourney champs and runner-up in '98, '09), a frequent Sweet 16 team (1998, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010), a frequent top 25 team (based on seedings in NCAA Tourney: 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010) and an occasional national power. But it's not North Carolina or Kentucky or Michigan State (Tom Izzo is really the best NCAA Tourney coach right now, considering relative team quality compared to results) where a Final Eight run is possible each year and a Final Four entry is just around the corner.

For that reason, yesterday's loss sucks. For the first time since '05, SU had legitimate expectations of a deep Tourney run. For the first time since '03, it had a very favorable bracket slot. And it had the players (Johnson, Rautins, Joseph) to do damage.

SU was far superior to Butler in skill and ability. But SU played awful on offense -- bad shots, mindless turnovers, sloppy passing. Give credit where due: Butler marked Johnson and Rautins closely, forced Jackson, Joseph and Triche/Jardine to beat it (they all failed), hedged hard on SU's top-of-key side-to-side offense to cut off driving lanes, played off the high-post passer to clog the lane, fought over the top of SU's ball screens out top to limit open shots for Rautins off ball reversals, and played a man-to-man defense reminiscent of the 1990s Knicks (which had to please Pat Riley, who was on hand probably to watch Wes Johnson). But SU adjusted: it moved Jackson out of the low block to the high post in the second half, it screened better for Rautins, it fought through Butler's picks against the top of The Zone, and it rebounded.

What killed SU was its turnovers. The Butler defense is designed like the Virginia defense The Monk watched in '89-'90 -- press the ballhandler, force the opponent out of its offensive set, make the opponent use clock, force bad shots. But Butler is NOT a turnover producer like Duke's overplay man-to-man. SU rushed its offense, made terrible passes, played sloppy with the ball, and coughed up 18 turnovers (Butler had 7). Thus, Butler took a 10-point halftime lead; thus, Butler never had to play from far behind. And when SU slowed the game down after taking a 54-50 lead, it helped Butler by defusing some SU momentum. After Butler regained the lead, SU devolved into the sloppy, rushed offense that started the game with one point in the first 6.5 minutes. In other words, like Kansas last weekend, the Orange panicked. K-State won't -- watch KSU beat Butler by 10-15.


With Joseph, Jardine/Triche, Jackson coming back, the addition of McDonald's All-American Fab de Melo (who would be just the sixth to matriculate since probation -- Wallace, Anthony, Devendorf, Greene, Flynn), and hopefully improvement from Jones, Southerland and an outside shot for Joseph, SU will have talent in '10-'11. Here's hoping those who bleed Orange like me won't have a long wait for another good Tournament run.

But this ending will still suck . . . for quite a while.

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