If you doubt the fact that 15 days comprise a lifetime in college basketball, consider this. It was just 15 days ago that Syracuse was 18-0. In both major polls that week the Orangemen were ranked No. 3 in the nation, behind only Ohio State and Kansas. Some observers at the time thought Jim Boeheim had the best team in the country, and Cuse was almost universally projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Then came the collapse -- surprising, unmistakable, and total. Over the last 15 days the Orangemen are 0-4, and three of those games were played in the friendly (albeit vast) confines of the Carrier Dome. If this team were losing nail-biters this could be chalked up to life as we know it in the Big East. But losing games by six (at Marquette), eight (vs. Pitt), 11 (vs. Villanova), and 22 points (vs. Seton Hall) suggests that the problem lies with Syracuse and not with their conference affiliation.
If anyone saw this coming they were keeping it to themselves, though Boeheim now maintains he knew all along that a top-five national ranking was too good to last. Referring to the offseason departures of Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins, and Arinze Onuaku, the coach had this to say after the Seton Hall game: "We lost three great players....We lost those three guys and we replaced them with three freshmen. Freshmen do not do well in this league."
Foregoing the temptation to ask Boeheim about a certain freshman on his 2003 national championship team, let's look instead at Syracuse in February 2011. What exactly is the problem? Can this team pick itself up off the floor and make some noise come March?
First, an imprecise but nevertheless important observation: These players are stunned just like the rest of us.
I know they are because back when Syracuse was 5-0 in the Big East this team, like every Boeheim team since the dawn of time, was getting to the foul line but not putting opponents there. Now the reverse is true. The Orangemen are fouling at a high rate (which is hard to do when you play zone) but they're not shooting free throws themselves. There's nothing about the "schemes" that Syracuse runs on either side of the ball or about their last four opponents that would lead us to expect this. Instead it appears that Boeheim's players are simply at a loss on defense and dispirited on offense. For now.
This defense is currently very un-Syracuse-like.
Boeheim's team is struggling on both sides of the ball (see below) but the first order of business is clearly shoring up this defense. Syracuse has allowed its last four opponents to score 323 points in 271 possessions. That works out to 1.19 points per trip, which, at the risk of shocking the children, is a hair worse than what DePaul's allowed this season in Big East play.
The zone has been compromised.
In addition to committing an unusual number of fouls, the Orangemen are allowing opposing offenses to record a highly unusual number of makes from the field. During this four-game losing streak, opponents are making 53 percent of their twos and, incredibly, 48 percent of their threes. This 0-4 run started with a 74-66 loss at home to Pitt, and at the time it was commonly said that as a program the Panthers have traditionally shown a good understanding of how to attack the 2-3 zone. Fair enough, but what's particularly disquieting if you're a Syracuse fan is that the Pitt game actually represented the best defense the Orangemen have played during this losing streak. Things have gone from bad to worse to downright strange.
Arinze Onuaku really was important -- just like Syracuse fans said.
Last year Boeheim had to take his team into the NCAA tournament without the 6-9 Onuaku, who suffered a knee injury in the 91-84 loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. When the Orangemen went on to lose to Butler in the Sweet 16, it left many Cuse fans wondering what might have been if their team had been healthy and whole. Well, what I'm about to say may not make those fans feel any better, but this year can be seen as further proof of Onuaku's importance. Even after a four-game skid, Syracuse is still one of the best shooting teams in the Big East -- give a lot of the credit there to Kris Joseph, Rick Jackson, and Brandon Triche. Yet this offense is producing a below-average number of points because, for one thing, they're not getting any offensive rebounds. Jackson's doing good work on the offensive glass, but there's only one Rick Jackson. Last year he and Onuaku teamed to pull down 39 percent of Syracuse's misses in Big East play. This year that number's down to 33 percent. And since, as we've seen, the Orangemen aren't getting to the line very often, this offense has largely been reduced to one method for getting points. Make the first shot from the field.
Syracuse plays three of their next four games on the road: Connecticut, South Florida, and Louisville are all awaiting visits from the Orangemen, while storied rival Georgetown will come to the Carrier Dome next week. Jim Boeheim's team is clearly reeling -- I'm not sure I've ever seen a defense collapse this suddenly and completely -- but at the end of the day it's still early February and Syracuse is still tied in the loss column with the eminently respectable likes of the Hoyas, Marquette, and Cincinnati.
In other words, all is not lost. For Syracuse to turn their season around they need to stop fouling, start pressuring, and just forget the last 15 days ever happened. After all, March is still a couple lifetimes away.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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