It's early in the season, but I feel confident in saying that Syracuse has had the most remarkable year, both good and bad, of any basketball program in the country.
Let's start with the bad. If you're reading this not only are you well aware of the sexual abuse allegations leveled against former associate head coach Bernie Fine, you may even know of little else related to Syracuse basketball in 2011. The accusations, along with head coach Jim Boeheim's initial response to them, have at times made basketball an afterthought in upstate New York -- literally, and rightly.
While the investigation into these charges continues, however, there is indeed basketball being played. And after Indiana's dramatic 73-72 win over Kentucky on Saturday, Syracuse replaced the Wildcats atop the polls as the No. 1 team in the nation. Are the Orange a deserving No. 1? And can this group go further in March than Boeheim's 2009-10 team, which was also ranked No. 1 for part of the regular season? Good questions. Time for some answers.
Yes, Syracuse has played a really easy schedule -- so what?
Teams play easy schedules all the time. Ohio State's actually played a softer slate than the Orange, even allowing for the fact that the Buckeyes just played a road game at Kansas (and lost, though they were without Jared Sullinger). Also keep in mind that the Syracuse schedule is not entirely within Boeheim's control. Well, most of it is, but in addition his team's game in the Big East/SEC Challenge this season, against Florida, just happened to be a home date. As a result 10-0 Syracuse has played eight games at the Carrier Dome and two in Madison Square Garden. On Saturday Boeheim's team will at long last play their first game outside the Empire State, when the Orange journey to Raleigh, NC, to take on NC State.
That being said, the question isn't simply how tough your schedule's been, but also how well have you played against that schedule? And the fact of the matter is Boeheim's team has played exceptionally well against their relatively easy schedule, scoring 1.16 points per possession and allowing just 0.83. True, some of that excellence was achieved against Fordham, Colgate, and Eastern Michigan, but Syracuse certainly doesn't have to apologize for facing the likes of the Gators, Virginia Tech, Stanford, and Marshall, all of whom rank among the best 50 or so teams in Division I. By the time the NCAA tournament selection committee is seeding the Orange in March, it won't really matter too much that this team had a forgiving early-season schedule. Two games against Louisville, a road game against Connecticut, a home game against perpetually underrated Marquette, and, of course, the (last full-strength) Big East tournament will give us ample opportunities to see Syracuse challenged.
Yes, this is a deserving No. 1
I don't mean the Orange are a shoo-in for the national championship (Carmelo Anthony thinks that's the case, though he might be biased), or even that they're clearly the best team in the country right now. I mean simply that Syracuse has won the games put in front of them, they've done so in such a way to suggest that they're the equal of any team in the country, and, if you're going to have polls, someone has to be No. 1. It might as well be the Orange, who are doing a lot of the things they often do (great defense without fouling, forcing opponents to shoot a lot of threes, etc,) but have now added something new and important: they're taking better care of the ball. To this point Syracuse has committed a turnover on just 17 percent of their possessions. That performance is a stark contrast to what we saw from the 2009-10 team (21 percent turnover rate in Big East play), and it should serve Boeheim's team well as the season progresses.
No, this is not "a team without stars"
I've seen write-ups on Syracuse claiming that this year's team is unusually balanced on offense, and that no one player demands the ball on every possession the way, say, Wes Johnson did in 2009-10. In fact the opposite is true. That 2010 team was actually the more balanced unit, at least in terms of workload on offense. With this year's team minutes are more balanced than possessions (exhibit A: Scoop Jardine is playing just 20 minutes a game), and even that may change once Syracuse starts playing more possessions where the game's outcome is in question.
For now, however, Boeheim will stick to what's brought his team this far, and that includes starting 6-9 freshman Rakeem Christmas in every game. In effect Christmas is an honorary starter, one who averages less than 14 minutes per contest. Coaches have their reasons for doing things like this, of course, but that shouldn't deter us from stating the obvious: Dion Waiters is a star in every sense of that term even if he doesn't happen to start.
The 6-4 sophomore is more likely to shoot during a given possession than Wes Johnson ever was, it's just that Waiters plays a mere 21 minutes a game. While Waiters' perimeter shot is a work in progress (he's a career 32 percent three-point shooter), any player who draws fouls, takes care of the ball, and drains 58 percent of his twos while functioning as his team's primary offensive weapon is a star. Also "star"-worthy: 6-4 junior Brandon Triche, who gives the Orange a legitimate outside threat while carrying a Waiters-sized load on offense.
We're about to learn the true value of defensive rebounding
The knock on Syracuse traditionally is that because they play so much zone defense they're not very good at defensive rebounding. This knock is actually more of a tendency than an iron law (in 2007-08 the Orange played zone but were outstanding on the defensive glass), but it would appear that this season there may be something to the stereotype after all. Early indications suggest Syracuse will indeed be pretty bad at defensive rebounding this year. Boeheim's men have played five games against teams from the nation's top 14 conferences, and in those five contests the Orange have pulled down just 60 percent of their opponents' misses. And while that number may be skewed a little by the fact that one of Syracuse's quality opponents, Marshall, just happens to be the best offensive rebounding team in the nation, it's still a safe bet that this group isn't going to dominate on the defensive glass.
In this respect Fab Melo is Syracuse in miniature -- if a seven-footer can be anything "in miniature." Melo's one of the nation's best shot-blockers, but he sells out for blocks so completely that he's rebounded less than 10 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes. For a player of his stature to post a defensive rebound percentage that low is almost unheard of, but you can't argue with success. The Orange's five quality opponents have scored just 0.87 points per possession.
If Syracuse wins Saturday at NC State, it's likely they could remain undefeated well into the new year. The Orange may be booked for an extended stay atop the polls. My advice is to get used to hearing about this team.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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