There was no shame in losing back-to-back games to Pitt and Villanova because those Big East foes boast Final Four talent. But being humiliated by 22 points on your home court by a mediocre Seton Hall team that came to town having lost three straight and six of its previous seven, is not so easily dismissed.
And what made Syracuse’s third consecutive defeat even more difficult to stomach was the questionable effort given by several Orange men. As a friend said: “That was the most gutless performance I’ve seen in more than 40 years of following Syracuse.” Gutless might be a tad strong, but it certainly was uninspired.
It might be too early to push the panic button, but it’s not too early to get your finger ready, just in case this mid-season, three-game skid is a harbinger of even worst things. You know, things like a free-fall stretch run that turns the second-best start in SU history into an NIT berth.
For the first 18 games – all victories – defense was a constant as the Orange men were among the national leaders in field-goal percentage defense and 3-point defense. But in the past three games opponents have exposed SU’s once vaunted 2-3 zone, shooting 52.9 percent from the floor and 48.2 percent from beyond the arc. Seton Hall, which entered the Dome as the league’s worst outside shooting team (22 percent) nailed 10-of-17 from downtown.
Now, I know the 2-3 is Jim Boeheim’s baby and it certainly has served him well during his 35-year, Hall of Fame career, but what’s the problem with playing man-to-man on occasion, especially if teams are lighting you up from the outside the way they’ve been? I have a hard-time believing that Division I scholarship athletes wouldn’t be capable of playing man defense at least a little.
Interestingly, despite the Hall’s offensive explosion the other night – the Pirates scored 90 points, 29 above their season average – Boeheim said his team’s offense has been a big problem of late. I wouldn’t disagree. SU’s offense was non-existent for the first eight minutes of the Pitt game, when the ’Cuse fell behind 19-0. The Orange also struggled to score at times in Saturday’s loss to Nova, and against Seton Hall, they continued to have problems putting the ball in the hoop – especially in close where they missed seven or eight easy baskets.
They’ve failed to run their offense in recent games. Instead of moving the ball around to find the open man, they rush shots, many of which are low-percentage. Much of the blame for this ineffectiveness falls on the shoulders and head of point guard Scoop Jardine, who has dished just nine assists the past three games while shooting only 29 percent from the field. The junior from Philly needs to be the leader he was during the second best start in SU hoops history. He needs to stop forcing shots and making lazy passes. He needs to make better decisions.
Boeheim is right when he says the upperclassmen – Jardine, Brandon Triche, Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson – will have to pull the Orange out of this funk. But it’s also about time the freshman show some more consistency and maturity. At this stage they should begin playing more like sophomores.
Jackson, who has 14 double-doubles, is in dire need of help on the boards from rookie centers Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita. Melo – the preseason pick of the Big East coaches to be freshman-of-the-year – is capable of making plays. But his court time has been limited in large part because of his lack of endurance and foul problems. Keita has the potential to be a dominating player if he adds some muscle to his woefully thin physique.
The good news is that Saturday visiting SU plays a Marquette team that has lost three of four and is among the worst defensive squads in the national statistics. The bad news is that the way the Orange men played against a ho-hum Seton Hall team the other night at home, they are capable of losing to anybody.
The Marquette game will be followed by road contests against fifth-ranked UConn and Big East doormat South Florida.
Maybe an extended trip will do them good. They still have time to bounce back. But it’s going to depend on Scoop making better decisions and the Orange men playing with more passion than they showed Tuesday night while suffering their worst home loss in 13 seasons.