Hey, look on the bright side: The Syracuse University basketball team won’t have to come up with a new slogan for next season.
The Orange men can simply re-use the “Unfinished Business” motto they emblazoned on T-shirts and posters this season.
While producing more turnovers than a baker – 18 in 40 minutes – SU frittered away a Sweet 16 berth in a sloppy 66-62 loss to Big East Conference foe Marquette Sunday night in Cleveland.
A promising season that began with an 18-0 record ends in disappointing fashion at 27-8. That the campaign would be brought to a halt by a league opponent is only fitting because all eight of the Syracuse losses were to Big East brethren.
I really believed this team had the stuff to make a run to the Elite Eight, but SU’s failure to protect the ball against a tenacious Marquette defense negated a 55-41-percent shooting advantage and prevented a much-anticipated Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina in Newark.
Despite the graduation of Big East Defensive Player of the Year Rick Jackson and the possible early departure of Kris Joseph to the NBA, there will be more than enough talent to finish the business next year.
And Jim Boeheim’s 36th edition should be bolstered by a top-six recruiting class that features shot-blocking 6-foot-9 center Rakeem Christmas and shooting guards Michael Carter-Williams and Trevor Cooney.
But talent is rarely a question with SU hoops. The unknowns will be team chemistry and leadership.
Point guard Scoop Jardine remains an enigmatic performer who has the ability to be both clutch and a klutz. I was expecting more stable play from the red-shirt junior. I wonder if there is any reason to believe he will make great strides in the decision-making department next year.
After watching freshman Dion Waiters explode for 18 points – including 15 in the second half – you have to figure he will be seeing a great deal more playing time in 2011-12. That means less PT for Scoop and Brandon Triche, who also tends to be consistently inconsistent, but has more room for growth because he’ll only be a junior.
Joseph, who’s projected as a second-round draft pick should he declare early, had a solid season, but didn’t make the jump many of us had expected. I think the junior forward would be foolish to leave school now because there is so much about his game that needs work, including shooting off the dribble. I would like to see Joseph commit himself to honing his skills this off-season the way Jackson did last spring and summer.
Speaking of guys who need a lot of work, let’s not forget the freshman bigs – Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita. Fab showed some late glimmers after being a flop for most of the season. The Brazilian needs to shed some flab and play as much summer ball as he can because he’s still a relative newcomer to the sport.
Keita, meanwhile, needs to bulk up. He’s woefully thin, but he’s a gifted athlete and could develop into a superb defensive, shot-blocking center down the road.
And let’s not forget about Da’Shonte Riley, a 7-footer who red-shirted his sophomore season because of a foot injury. In retrospect, SU really could have used him this year while its freshman centers were struggling.
I’m also looking forward to watching the progression of forward C.J. Fair, who was the best of this crop of freshmen. The kid has tremendous upside and could be a dominant force by the time he’s a junior. He is athletic and fearless, and knows how to fill a scoresheet with points, rebounds, blocks and steals.
The future looks bright. SU will be good again. Just how good will depend on the leadership it receives, the work the players put into the off-season and how well they gel.
Jackson, who finished his career as one of only five SU players to accumulate 1,000 points, 800 rebounds and 200 blocks, is projected as a mid- to late second-round pick in June’s NBA draft. Joseph has shown up as a mid-second-rounder in several mock drafts.
The Big East clearly has not fared well after placing a record 11 teams in the tournament. The Conference is 9-9 in the NCAAs (though that record is deceiving because it includes two head-to-head league matchups) and has just two teams in the Sweet 16 – Connecticut and Marquette.
Nationally honored columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has covered Syracuse basketball since the mid-1970s. His 14th book, Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story will be published by Triumph Books this fall.