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Syracuse’s 79-75 loss to Georgetown on Saturday was its fifth nonconference loss of the season, just the second time in program history the Orange have hit that mark. The last time came in 2016-17, when SU missed out on the NCAA Tournament and lost in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
With Syracuse now sitting at 5-5 a third into the regular season, our beat writers reflect on where SU stands heading into the heat of Atlantic Coast Conference play.
1. Have your expectations changed since the start of the season?
Andrew Crane: Yes. They absolutely have, and not in a good way. I think the ceiling of this Syracuse team remains the same — an NCAA Tournament team that could win a game, or two, but the potential floor of this SU season has lowered after losses to Colgate and Georgetown. I wasn’t overly concerned after the Orange left the Battle 4 Atlantis, especially because of how difficult VCU’s defense made it to attack, but the four games since have painted a different picture. According to ShotQuality data, Florida State wins that Dec. 4 game 90% of the time based on the shots taken by each team (a projected 81-67 SU loss).
The Orange’s offense relies on a lot of mid-range jumpers when the 3-pointers don’t fall, while on defense, SU’s ShotQuality points per possession for catch-and-shoot 3-pointers sits at 1.12 and ranks 349th in the country. Those problems stem further than outliers, unfortunate bounces on shots and one-time issues.
Roshan Fernandez: I think Syracuse has underperformed through the first 10 games of the season. I knew there’d be growing pains for a team with three new starters, but I didn’t think they’d be this significant. True, Syracuse had a challenging nonconference schedule, but it shouldn’t have lost to Colgate, Georgetown and probably VCU. The Orange were very lucky to beat Florida State. The offense hasn’t found a consistent rhythm or played a complete game, and the defense is really struggling. Syracuse needs to find an answer to the plethora of open 3-pointers that opponents are going to put up.
Gaurav Shetty: I think my expectations have definitely changed. In the preseason I expected Syracuse to finish anywhere between fourth and seventh in the ACC. That’s probably still going to be true, but likely toward the latter half of the range around sixth or seventh. Likewise, I’d say the ceiling of this team has lowered. It might’ve been wishful thinking to predict a ceiling of the Elite Eight in preseason, whereas now it might be the Sweet 16 instead.
2. What are the major things Syracuse needs to address before conference play gets into full swing in January?
Crane: The most glaring issue for Syracuse this year has been its defense, and nothing has been able to solve it. Not the 2-3 zone. Not the 1-1-3. That ranks the highest on the list of fixes before January, but beyond that, the Orange need to figure out how to create opportunities for Buddy Boeheim. Defenses have started playing him tighter, but he missed multiple open 3-pointers against Villanova and Georgetown, and driving toward the elbows has started to become more of a primary instinct this year — he ranks in the 93rd percentile, per ShotQuality, for his short midrange offense and ShotQuality points per possession.
Fernandez: The defense is the obvious answer, so I’ll go with streaky shooting instead. This offense has the potential to be a serious perimeter threat, and a threat inside via Jesse Edwards and Jimmy Boeheim. But SU hasn’t put all that together for an entire game. Instead, it has seemed to click for short spurts and then collapse moments later. Its strong offense might be able to conceal defensive issues and get Syracuse through the regular season, but it’ll need to find a rhythm — and fast — if it wants to get into full swing.
Shetty: Without a doubt, it has to be the defense. It’s halfway through December, and Jim Boeheim is still unhappy with his defense and has said it hasn’t been good all season. At some point, something has to click for this team or else NCAA Tournament hopes might go from a deep run to serious question marks over whether this team even qualifies.
3. Who is Syracuse’s X-factor moving forward?
Crane: It’s definitely Jimmy. If Syracuse doesn’t figure out a way to help Buddy find his rhythm from 3, Jimmy’s become the team’s second-best offensive option — especially with Edwards’ recurring foul trouble. He’s scored 21 or more points in two of the Orange’s last four games, with most of those makes coming within the same radius by the basket. The forwards Jimmy lines up with will get tougher to score against, but if he can, that’ll either force defenses off of Buddy a bit up top or become a formidable scoring option if they don’t budge.
Fernandez: Edwards could be the Orange’s unsung hero. If he can improve on the boards by boxing out and getting to rebounds on the offensive and defensive boards, he could be just what Syracuse needs to get going. Edwards has made tremendous strides since last season, and he’s been an impressive scoring threat for SU inside. That opens up Buddy, Joe Girard III and Cole Swider to loft wide-open 3-pointers. Edwards will need to stay out of foul trouble, and he has room to grow as a defender. But if he can put it all together, he could be the answer to turning this struggling defense around.
Shetty: Benny Williams. The five-star freshman has underwhelmed to say the least. In the past three games combined, Williams has played less than 10 minutes total. The growing pains were apparent throughout the season, but ever since dropping a critical rebound and giving up a late foul against Indiana, Williams appears to be falling down the rotation. If he can work his way to at least a quality bench producer, that would help give Syracuse at least one solid option off the bench instead of playing all five starters for almost the entire game.
4. Have the Orange succeeded in replacing departures from last season including Alan Griffin, Quincy Guerrier and Kadary Richmond?
Crane: In ways, yes, but overall, I’d say no. And I think the evidence for why that’s the case comes via Buddy’s production. Griffin and Guerrier both posed threats in the post that could take over a game. Swider and Griffin are similar when it comes to rebounding, and the former seems to have settled into his zone positioning better than Griffin did last year. But Guerrier was a potential NBA draft prospect, while Jimmy, though consistent in what he brings to the offense, is nowhere near that level.
Richmond represents the piece that the Orange miss both offensively and defensively, though. His wingspan disrupted passes at the top of the zone, and his north-south ability opened up different avenues for points. Symir Torrence, I’d argue, is better than Girard at that approach, but still not at Richmond’s level.
Fernandez: The truth is it’s still hard to say right now. Jimmy has been an effective scoring option inside, but he’s not the rebounder that Guerrier was. Torrence can drive, but he’s not the same defensive option as Richmond. Swider seems like a streaky shooter — like Griffin was — who hasn’t quite found his stroke yet. Syracuse is still putting all the new pieces together and it’s still relatively early in the year, so I don’t want to say they’ve failed at replacing the departures. But there definitely hasn’t been resounding success either.
Shetty: I’d say the Orange are two for three on replacements. Of the trio, Jimmy has replaced the production of Guerrier. Swider is close to matching the scoring of Griffin, but he’s currently shooting just 29% from 3 this season. If Swider manages to correct that, then he might be able to post similar scoring highs to that of Griffin. Richmond is the one player the Orange have not come close to replacing. Torrence is not the same player Richmond was, and as much as Boeheim might say otherwise, the minutes per game tell a different story. Through 10 games, Boeheim played a freshman Richmond 22.3 minutes per game, while Torrence, a junior, plays just 11.1.
5. Which key games does Syracuse need to win to help its NCAA Tournament prospects? Which losses have hurt SU the most so far?
Crane: The pair of Duke games are obvious ones, and splitting those games against the Blue Devils will give the Orange one ranked win in conference play. But it’s turning out to be a down year for the ACC again, at least based on the trajectory that its performance in nonconference games has it on, so it’ll also be important to make a run in the ACC Tournament come March. They’ll hover around the middle of the standings like always, but a ranked win or two paired with a deep run serves as the route for the Orange to make it into the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, it could be a return to the NIT for the first time since 2016-17.
Fernandez: The Colgate loss could haunt SU. Right now, it’s a Quadrant III loss, but that could easily turn into Quadrant IV. Syracuse has a stretch of should-win games against Lehigh, Cornell, Georgia Tech and a struggling Virginia team. It should beat Miami and Pitt too, and keep the Wake Forest game very competitive. This upcoming stretch is going to be crucial for this SU team that desperately needs to find its mojo and its rhythm. They’re not highly touted matchups like Syracuse-Duke will be on Jan. 22 and Feb. 26, or like UNC or Virginia Tech. But these upcoming games are critical for the Orange to build momentum, to build confidence and to figure out how to fix this defense.
Shetty: Virginia on New Year’s Day is a big game for SU. KenPom projects both teams to finish 10-10 in the conference, so getting that win over a close rival in the standings would help. Ditto for Wake Forest and Clemson, which both should be winnable games. However, the three-game stretch near the end of the season with Notre Dame away, Duke at home, and UNC away could make or break Syracuse’s NCAA Tournament chances. As for losses, the Colgate loss looked bad on paper the night of, and looks even worse now after the Raiders followed that win with a three-game losing streak to Harvard, Niagara and Northeastern.
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