Syracuse is ranked #2 in the country and along with Kentucky seen as one of the two teams who really have separation from the rest of the nation. Do the Orange have the personnel to back it up as the season hits its crunch point? Just as TheSportsNotebook did with Kentucky last week, we’ll take a player-by-player look at the Syracuse lineup, in anticipation of both tonight’s game at Louisville (7 PM ET, ESPN) and what’s ahead the rest of the way.
G: Scoop Jardine—A 6’2” senior, Jardine runs the offense and his playmaking skills are superior. Not only is his season-long average of 5 assists per game solid, but he’s been at his best of late. Over the past eight games, Jardine’s exceeded his average, including eight assists in last Wednesday’s thriller over Georgetown. His lack of scoring is not an issue, because there’s plenty in this lineup to pick up the slack and as a pretty decent shooter from the floor Jardine can make defenses pay if they back him too much. Where his big flaw comes is at the free throw line, where he’s at 52 percent. It almost goes without saying that a team that’s going to win a series of big games in March is going to have to hit free throws down the stretch. On this 25th anniversary of Syracuse’s championship game loss to Indiana, where the Orange missed chances down the stretch at the foul line, no one knows this better than Jim Boeheim. Jardine’s got to find a way to convert these shots or to get the ball out of his hands.
G: Brandon Triche—The junior is the free-throw shooter that Jardine is not, at 88 percent. While more reliable in the closing minutes, he’s less dynamic throughout the rest of the game. Triche’s three-point shooting is okay, but nothing that’s going to loosen defenses up. He scores 10 ppg, which is solid, but nothing that’s going to alter a defensive game plan. In short, he’s a cog, not a difference-maker.
G: Dion Waiters—The best of the backcourt group, Waiters scores 12 a game, and hits nearly 50 percent from the floor. If we want to ring him up on something it’s that in Syracuse’s two toughest Big East games—against Marquette and Georgetown, he didn’t have a standout game in either one, compared to Triche’s 16-point game against Marquette and Jardine’s playmaking against the Hoyas. But that’s picking nits to a degree—Waiters hasn’t been in the tank either. At 6’4”, the sophomore is a good asset to a championship-caliber team.
F: C.J. Fair—The season-long numbers of 9 points/5 rebounds aren’t remarkable, but the 6’8” sophomore has saved big games for the biggest moments. Again using Georgetown and Marquette as a benchmark, he’s averaged 13.5/10 in those two games. Nothing like having an X-factor in your back pocket when you face the best teams.
F: Kris Joseph—The 6’7” senior is the most consistent player on this team. He’s more of finesse forward, shooting about four treys a game and getting five rebounds. He averages 14 ppg, and exceeded that against Marquette, while going off for 29 against Georgetown. At 37 percent from three-point range, that’s good enough to make shooting it worthwhile, but for a forward I’d like see the average be closer to 40 before stepping out as often as Joseph does.
C: Fab Melo—He was suspended for three games in January, at which time Syracuse suffered its only loss, at Notre Dame. Though in fairness, the Orange were so thoroughly outplayed that night in South Bend that I can’t really blame that on one player. But Melo is a huge difference-maker on the defensive end. The 7-foot sophomore from Brazil has blocked at least four shots nine times this season. Including six against Georgetown and an epic ten-block game against Seton Hall early in the conference schedule. If the season does come down to Syracuse-Kentucky on a Monday night in April, Melo would be a worthy adversary for Kentucky’s Anthony Jones. Come to think of it, the way those two block shots the ball might never see the rim.
Overall, I’m not as impressed with Syracuse’s personnel as I am with Kentucky’s. I don’t want to come off knocking Brandon Triche because he’s a decent player on an excellent team, but when you look at the rest of the players on both squads, he seems sort of out of place. Jones is more consistent than Melo. And most of all, the free-throw shooting issue from Jardine concerns me. I don’t want to get carried away in evaluating Kentucky-Syracuse as though they’re about to play, because the odds of the best two teams surviving the NCAA Tournament aren’t great. But I would consider the Orange much more vulnerable than the Wildcats to an early exit.
Looking at the rest of the way, denying Syracuse an outright Big East crown is going to be tough. They lead Marquette by two games and don’t play the Golden Eagles a second time. And after tonight, Syracuse’s remaining schedule is quite manageable—at Rutgers, South Florida, at UConn and then a home date with Louisville to end the regular season. The Orange would have to lose tonight to make Marquette catching them even a possibility, and that’s still on the presumption that MU runs the table. So whatever my doubts about their national championship mojo, Jim Boeheim has done a fabulous job with this team and sits on the brink of a Big East championship when he takes the court tonight.