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November 23, 2009
Just How Good is Syracuse?

by John Gasaway

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If Syracuse in November of 2009 had never existed it would have been necessary to invent them, if for no other reason than to illustrate the bipolar doom-vs.-euphoria nature of so much hoops punditry.

Just three short weeks ago Jim Boeheim’s team lost an exhibition game to Division II Le Moyne by the score of 82-79. That loss was effectively the first headline of the new college season nationally and, not surprisingly, it occasioned some dire proclamations where the Orangemen are concerned. (Notable exceptions here included Andy Katz and Ken Pomeroy. Take a bow, gents.)

Today those three weeks may as well have been three years. On Friday night in Madison Square Garden Boeheim’s men blew North Carolina off the floor by the score of 87-71. The words “blew North Carolina off the floor” are, by my lights, impressive enough. Nevertheless in the wake of that remarkable game, still more has been claimed for the Orangemen. It seems that Boeheim suddenly has the team to beat in the Big East.

There’s something hard-wired into all of us who are college hoops fans that makes us want to turn every instance of merely great news into drop-dead stunning and world-changing news. (Yes, your honor, I plead guilty to these charges myself.) For instance: Syracuse is likely going to be better than we thought they’d be this year. That’s great news! But somehow we can’t leave it at that. Instead we say the Orangemen are now certainly at the top of the Big East. Stranger things have happened, goodness knows, but I’m not ready to go that far just yet. Let’s look at the North Carolina team that’s triggered all this fuss by losing. This is not the first time in calendar ’09 where a UNC opponent stylistically predisposed to give Williams’ team fits has made headlines.

It’s been a little more than 300 days since a North Carolina opponent accomplished something even more impressive than what we just saw Syracuse do. As good as the Tar Heels are right now, I think we can all agree they were better last year. And on January 4 Boston College beat that better version of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 85-78. Did that mean BC was certainly at the top of the ACC? Of course not. It meant Tyrese Rice went nuts and the Tar Heels really missed Marcus Ginyard. Likewise, Friday night’s game revealed a side of the Heels that we suspected might be lurking beneath all the talent. After all, we’ve seen North Carolina forced into a starvation diet of jump shots by really tall Big East teams before and the results are not pretty.

(Pardon the non-Syracuse interruption but: If you’re outmanned against North Carolina, as most of their opponents this year will be, why in the world wouldn’t you at least experiment with a zone against this team after seeing what you saw at MSG? Far too often coaches rely on their own routine and preferences when they should instead seek to sow chaos in the opponent’s routine and preferences. Believe me, college players can adapt to a coach suddenly saying, “Let’s try zone.” Look at Baylor, which sprang a surprise zone on Kansas in the Big 12 tournament last year. If Scott Drew had relied on the same-old, do the overmatched Bears win that game? No way.)

But enough about Carolina, we’re here to talk about the team that ground the Heels into a fine blue powder. What does Syracuse’s performance over two games in Madison Square Garden (including Thursday night’s 95-73 win over Cal) say about what we’ll see from them this season? Here are some first-blush thoughts, informed by the numbers from the two MSG games and presented here in descending degrees of finality.

1. Syracuse will not continue to make 63 percent of their twos. No team in the history of tempo-free time has made more than 57.7 percent of their twos in major-conference play. (Congratulations, Georgetown ’07.) For any team, of course, two-point percentage is a pretty trusty barometer of performance on offense. Not to be a buzzkill or anything but that barometer will turn south for the Orangemen, the only question is when.

2. (Ties in with 1.) We have likely seen the peak performance of this offense. The fact that half that peak was attained against a defense as good as North Carolina’s is undeniably impressive. As I said, there is great news here: Syracuse looks primed to be better than anyone thought heading into the season. At the Garden Boeheim’s men scored 1.16 points per trip over two games. That is very good. Pitt attained the same figure over the course of the entire Big East season last year. That is awesome.

3. Wesley Johnson may not continue to make 47 percent of his threes and 62 percent of his twos. Though, make no mistake, if he does he should be selected before John Wall next summer. Should it come to that I would be delighted to lend my voice to this chorus: Boeheim says Johnson is good people and I am inclined to believe the coach. (Note additionally that I would not be surprised if Arinze Onuaku does in fact continue to make something like 71 percent of his twos. He has that history.)

And while this doesn’t rise to the level of a boldface statement, I will also recklessly go on the record here as stating that Andy Rautins won’t continue to record over eight steals for every 100 defensive possessions he plays, a level of felony that if extended over the course of a season would make him perhaps the greatest defensive guard in the history of the college game.

Syracuse has had the most impressive start of any team in the country. Let us then render unto them the compliment of praise we won’t have to abandon later: This is a really good team, one that should make the fans in the Carrier Dome very happy this season. What’s more, there’s a not inconsiderable chance the ‘Cuse might be even better than “really good,” we just can’t be sure of that yet. But we will be watching closely.

John talks about teams besides Syracuse on Twitter: @johngasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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