What’s Wrong With Syracuse?

How did high-flying Syracuse (No. 22 in ESPN/USA Today poll), a team that began the year 16-1 on the strength of one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, become Syracuse, 1-5 in its last six games and edging toward NCAA tournament bubble status?

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, whose Huskies handed the Orange their latest defeat, 63-49, Wednesday night, speculated that the Big East Conference’s brutally deep schedule was to blame.

"Teams are getting hurt in the conference’s wash cycle," Calhoun told reporters in a press conference following the game. "The league is filled with good teams who have not-so-good records right now."

But for Syracuse, good teams were no barrier to success early in the season—the Orange have wins this season over non-conference foes Memphis, Kansas and Florida. Instead, it is a pair of injuries to center Arinze Onuaku and Andy Rautins that are both slowing down the Syracuse attack and opening the Orange defense, already the weak spot of the team, even further.

The knee tendinitis Onuaku is suffering from has been hurting Syracuse at both ends of the floor. The center is gamely playing through it, but the results have taken what promised to be a breakout season for the 6-foot-9 junior and made it into a lackluster one.

Prior to the 1-5 skid, Onuaku averaged just below 13 points and eight rebounds per game, scoring 17 or more on five occasions. Over the past six games, his averages are 5.2 points and six rebounds per game, and he’s scored 0, 4, 4 and 4 points in the past four contests. More to the point, his mobility is limited, and he can’t really jump.

This obviously hurts Syracuse on the defensive end as well. Onuaku had been averaging nearly two blocks per game—over the last six games, he has a total of three blocks. Even worse, that means players can penetrate on Syracuse with impunity, which is problematic for a team whose perimeter players don’t move that well laterally, the notable exception being point guard Johnny Flynn.

The ankle injury to Andy Rautins is causing similar problems, especially at the offensive end. Rautins had been shooting just under 40 percent from three-point range until the injury occurred. Since then, however, he’s just 13-for-47, or less than 28 percent. And with the ankle problem affecting his quickness, teams have no reason to back off of him defensively, while exploiting him at the other end of the court.

The resulting chasms haven’t been filled by either the lackluster replacements off the Syracuse bench, nor from Syracuse’s two stars, Flynn and Eric Devendorf. Onuaku is key for a team that has only Rick Jackson, a space filler with no offensive game to speak of, and the undersized Kristof Ongenaet to fill in for Onuaku. Meanwhile, the highly touted Mookie Jones, who could have spelled Rautins, was lost for the year due to injury as well.

For Flynn, the immensely talented point guard, playing every minute while trying to do all of the scoring and run the offense has been asking too much of him. His field goal percentage has dropped from 49 percent in Syracuse’s first 19 games to less than 39 percent during Syracuse’s 1-5 skid. It’s no surprise that his legs wouldn’t be under his shots—he’s played 231 of a possible 240 minutes during the slump.

Eric Devendorf, meanwhile, has continued scoring. But the lack of offensive options has forced him to try to create his own shots, with disastrous turnover results. Devendorf has averaged better than five turnovers per game, an astounding total for someone who isn’t even the main ball-handler on his team. He had an astounding nine turnovers against Providence—not a particularly good defensive team. He’s clearly trying to do too much.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is trying to do the best with what he has—and being a Hall of Famer, he does find some openings. Knowing his team can’t handle a strong post player, he threw quick double-team traps at both Connecticut’s Jeff Adrien and Villanova’s Dante Cunningham, with varying degrees of success, particularly against Adrien.

But Saturday’s matchup with Georgetown seems designed to exploit Syracuse’s current weaknesses. The Hoyas have a tremendously mobile center in Greg Monroe—not only that, but if Syracuse attempts to double-team him, Monroe, the best-passing center in the Big East, will quickly find the open man. A quick point guard in Chris Wright means that Jonny Flynn will be occupied at both ends of the court. And defensively, Syracuse doesn’t have answers for both DaJuan Summers and Austin Freeman.

A loss would drop Syracuse to 6-7 in the conference, with 9-9 likely needed to earn an NCAA berth. The Orange then have eight days off before completing their schedule with two difficult games (Villanova, at Marquette), two easy games (Rutgers, at St. John’s) and a toss-up match against Cincinnati. Clearly, the eight days of rest could do the Orange some good.

WEEKLY RESET-Games to Watch

Saturday, February 14

Georgetown at No. 22 Syracuse, No. 1 Connecticut at Seton Hall, Cincinnati at No. 4 Pittsburgh

For both Syracuse and Georgetown, this game is huge. For Syracuse, the stakes are mentioned above. For Georgetown, a loss means a 4-8 in-conference record—to get to 9-9, the Hoyas would need to take care of business against DePaul, St. John’s and South Florida, then win two of three against No. 7 Louisville, No. 12 Marquette and No. 13 Villanova. For a team that has struggled of late, that’s practically a death sentence.

For Seton Hall, this is the chance to make believers out of everyone. The Pirates started 0-6 in conference play, with overtime losses to Providence and Villanova. But Seton Hall has won five straight—yet only Georgetown qualifies as a decent win. A victory over Connecticut would put Seton Hall at 6-6 in-conference, and very much in the NCAA tournament discussion. Perhaps Connecticut, fresh off the Syracuse win and with Pittsburgh looming Monday, comes in groggy?

Cincinnati, meanwhile, has a chance to solidify a tournament bid with a win over Pittsburgh. The Bearcats are 7-5 in conference play, but a bit light on quality wins (it would help their case if Georgetown rallies—Cincinnati beat the Hoyas twice). Winning at Pitt is a tall order, however.

Monday, February 16

No. 4 Pittsburgh at No. 1 Connecticut

Don’t plan on a high-scoring affair—these two teams are among the best in both defense and rebounding. If Pitt center DeJuan Blair stays out of foul trouble, Pitt could give Connecticut a tough time. Should be a classic Big East battle.

Wednesday, February 18

Providence at No. 7 Louisville

Is Providence for real? Nobody knows. The Friars beat Seton Hall and Cincinnati twice, but all three wins came before those two began playing well. West Virginia crushed Providence by 27, and the Friars lost early this season to Northeastern, of all teams. Still, at 7-5 in the Big East (likely 8-5 by Wednesday—Providence plays Rutgers on Saturday), Providence has a chance to clinch a .500 record in the toughest conference in basketball and earn a signature win all at once. That should punch their NCAA ticket.