Syracuse's strength, Boatright's shortcomings and more mailbag
Syracuse's excellence on the court has been overshadowed by Bernie Fine case
Freshman Austin Rivers has shown big-time talent even when Duke has faltered
Ryan Boatright will be a poor man's Kemba Walker if he doesn't show more heart
A lot of people who are not college basketball fans -- or even sports fans in general -- have been talking about Syracuse basketball the last three weeks. This, of course, is for all the wrong reasons. But there is a parallel story in play that has been obscured by the Bernie Fine scandal -- namely, that this is the best team that Syracuse has had since Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara led the Orange to the NCAA championship in 2003. Imagine, if you will, what it will be like if the Orange return to the Final Four. That won't just be a sports story, it will be a news story. Fine's specter will hover everywhere in New Orleans that weekend.
In the meantime, the Fine story appears to be subsiding a tad as the basketball season resumes something close to its normal rhythm. Frankly, it's awkward for me to assess Syracuse from a purely basketball standpoint right now; the last thing I want to do is come across as insensitive to the tragedy of child abuse. It will be some time before we have all the information we need about what Fine did (or didn't do), and whether the school, and Jim Boeheim in particular, properly handled information that could have tipped them off. In the meantime, I'm going to gingerly -- and I hope, respectfully -- begin this first edition of my college basketball mailbag by fielding a question about the 'Cuse that is strictly about basketball. For a change.
As far as my Orange are concerned, I think it's a little early to question playing time, especially on such a deep team. I will say that I LOVE Michael Carter-Williams and believe he has a bright future if not an NBA one, and Rakeem Christmas will have opportunities to play. These guys have quality upperclassmen in front of them. I love this team's talent but I don't like that we have so many guys or that our two biggest weaknesses are rebounding and ball security. Thoughts?
Jeff Wright, Orleans, Mass.
Jeff is reacting to a point I made in a previous Hoop Thoughts column declaring my surprise that Boeheim wasn't getting more production out of his two heralded freshmen. I must admit, in doing so I fell into a line of thinking which I have frequently criticized. Too often, we quote-unquote experts expect freshmen to have an immediate major impact, and when they don't we declare them disappointments. Exhibit A was last year's Harrison Barnes chatter, which couldn't comprehend that it took the kid all the way until February of his freshman year to start playing like an All-American.
So I agree with both of Jeff's points about the freshmen. There is no doubt in my mind that Christmas and Carter-Williams are going to be very good college players. It's also clear their playing time has been limited by the presence of established underclassmen. (Which naturally makes them candidates for my list of breakout sophs next year.) Carter-Williams looked very impressive when I watched the team practice in October, but he has really struggled to shoot (26.9 percent from the floor, 16.7 percent from three). Meanwhile, Christmas, a raw 6-foot-9 power forward, has been getting the Fab Melo treatment. He has started every game, but Boeheim has been giving him a quick hook, and he is ranked eighth on the team in minutes played at 13 per game. I thought Boeheim really hurt Melo's confidence by doing that last year, and I fear he's now doing the same to Christmas.
As for the broader deficiencies Jeff mentioned, I don't see either as fatal. Syracuse is actually a pretty good rebounding team. They're grabbing nearly seven more boards per game than their opponents, and they're ranked sixth in the country in offensive rebound percentage. (They are, however, 248th nationally in defensive rebound percentage, which is a byproduct of playing so much zone.) As for ball security, the Orange is 43rd in the country in turnover percentage and 11th in overall offensive efficiency. I realize that Scoop Jardine will often leave fans wanting more, but you have to give the senior point guard credit for making several big-time plays down the stretch of that Florida game. And if having too many guys is this team's biggest problem ... well, that's a pretty high-class problem to have.
On to the rest of the Mailbag.....
I never doubted Austin Rivers' individual talent but do we really know he's the "real deal" when he was the only scoring option in a horrible game played by Duke [against Ohio State]? We need to see Rivers display his talent within the team's offensive scheme while keeping the others involved. We haven't seen that yet.
John Owusu, Glenn Dale, Maryland
I certainly agree with John on one thing: It is way too early to draw definitive conclusions about Rivers. But that works both ways, right? Several people have dissected Rivers's inconsistent play and concluded that he is struggling, or that he's overrated, or that he's a bad teammate. I don't think any of those things are true.
Put down the spreadsheets for a second and watch the kid play. Does he not look like a big-time talent? The fact that Duke was struggling against Ohio State only strengthened my observation that Rivers is legit. On a night where too many of his older teammates showed absolutely no fight, Rivers made himself the hardest player on his team to guard.
As for his lack of ability to get others involved in the offense, this is the area of his game which needs to improve the most. From everything I've heard out of Durham, Rivers has a burning desire to learn and a genuine understanding of how much he doesn't know. Frankly, it bothers me when people extrapolate playing deficiencies into character flaws. Rivers has a natural scowl and he needs to work on his body language. But he's also a 19-year-old kid who oozes with potential. Believe me, there's not a coach in America who wouldn't love to have Rivers on his team and in his locker room. It's only a matter of time -- and I believe it will be a short time -- before he starts to figure it all out.