Jim Boeheim has never been one to mince words. Over the past two days, he has watched his team look flustered on offense, struggle on defense and overall look nothing like the preseason top-25 team that was expected to be among the best in the ACC. Syracuse came into Madison Square Garden the favorite to win the 2K Classic. It leaves empty-handed and in need of a reset. The Orange fell to an emotionally-charged UConn team on Thursday, then lost 80–65 to Oregon a day later. After both games, Boeheim didn’t hold back his frustration. “I’m more than concerned,” he said Friday. “We gotta play much better offensively. Our defense is nowhere near where it was last year. There’s no doubt that we have a lot of work to do.”
Under Boeheim, Syracuse has become known for its devastating zone defense. Opponents shot 39% from the field against the Orange last year, the fifth-lowest mark in the country. Both UConn (49% shooting) and Oregon (50%) easily surpassed that number. Syracuse didn’t allow a single team to score 80 points in regulation last year. It just gave up 80 points on back-to-back nights. The problem is simple to diagnose yet may be tough to fix: the zone just isn’t causing as much disruption as it typically does. Oregon was able to move the ball around the perimeter with ease and find open space in the high post and along the baseline. Syracuse had no answer for 7’2” freshman sensation Bol Bol in the paint; on his 19th birthday, Bol dropped 26 points and grabbed five offensive rebounds.
Perhaps more concerning is Syracuse’s offensive woes. On Thursday, the Orange shot 39% from the floor and 27% from three—prompting their Hall of Fame coach to say “we can’t make anything.” He was proven right Friday, as his team’s shooting percentages fell to 35 % overall and 18% from deep against the Ducks. Hesitant to drive to the basket against shot-blocking menace Bol, Syracuse was content to let 28 threes fly. Only five found the mark. It was a particularly tough two-game stretch for Syracuse’s two best players, Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett. Battle, a junior guard voted onto the All-ACC First Team this offseason after averaging 19 points per game last year, needed 27 shots to score 30 points at the Garden. Brissett was even worse, shooting 3-for-15 and 2-for-12 in the two losses. “He’s just not there,” Boeheim said of the sophomore. “He’s not playing at the level we need him to play. We need him and Tyus to play at a high level and they’re not.”
The reality of Syracuse’s offensive outlook is simple, according to its coach. “If our guys can score that we think can score, we’ll be alright,” Boeheim said. “If they don’t, we will not be alright.” The Orange’s personnel is such that there are only a few reliable scoring options, all of which are perimeter players. Syracuse got nothing offensively from its bigs, an issue that seems unlikely to change. Paschal Chukwu and Marek Dolezaj aren’t physical or skilled enough to provide much offense. They got pushed around by UConn’s Eric Cobb on Thursday and stood no chance against Oregon’s Bol-Kenny Wooten frontcourt on Friday. Wooten dunking all over Dolezaj is a fairly representative summary of the matchup down low.
The easy excuse to make for Syracuse’s struggles is that it was without senior point guard Frank Howard in NYC. Howard averaged 14.4 points per game a year ago and like Battle and Brissett, played more than 38 minutes a night. But though Howard’s return will help (Boeheim said he’s hoping to get him back at practice this week), his replacement in the starting lineup, freshman point guard Jalen Carey, was the Orange’s best player, suggesting Syracuse’s offensive issues run much deeper than Howard’s absence. It has very few players who can consistently stretch the floor and present no low-post presence. One would figure that playing against a zone defense in practice every day would prepare Syracuse to take on Oregon’s zone. Instead, it looked disjointed and unsure of itself. “We need to play more together,” Carey said. “Every practice is going to matter. Each day is going to build chemistry.”
While Syracuse heads home with a bad taste in its mouth, Oregon’s win helped salvage a trip that began with a disappointing loss to Iowa. Dana Altman didn’t think his team fought hard enough against the Hawkeyes, and Bol was noticeably disengaged for much of the night. Not wanting to have to fly back across the country with two losses, Oregon came out with an improved intensity and dissected Syracuse’s defense. The star was Bol, who showed off his unique, tantalizing skill set in front of roughly 60 NBA scouts. At 7’2”, Bol can handle the ball like a guard and possesses an extremely soft touch around the rim. He also nailed a three for good measure. “I think last night was kind of a wake-up call,” said junior guard Payton Pritchard, who added 18 points. “We can’t just walk through teams. Our preparation before the game has to be better. In a way, maybe we could look at [losing] as a good thing.”
Maybe losing will be a good thing for Syracuse too. The Orange will not have a ranking when they play their next game, and perhaps the lower expectations will remove some pressure for a team that seems to always end up on the bubble. “We’re gonna respond the right way,” Battle promises. Boeheim indicated he may go to a small lineup once Howard returns, playing him alongside Carey and sliding Battle down to the three. Maybe that will rejuvenate this team. Right now, there are more questions than answers, with the only sure thing being that Syracuse practices will not be a lot of fun this week. This was a team that was supposed to avoid the bubble and cruise to a high seed in March. There’s a long way to go until then, but Syracuse’s winless trip to the Garden offered little reason to believe it won’t be sweating out another Selection Sunday in four months’ time.