Fresh off a heartbreaking double OT loss to Notre Dame in their ACC opener, the Jackets return home to face another tough in-conference opponent. Syracuse has stumbled a bit this season but remain one of the conference best teams and they look to secure yet another NCAA tournament bid. I chatted with John Cassillo from Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician to find out more about the Orange.
Syracuse has had NBA caliber point guards come through the program over the recent years. What is it about the PGs that come through and can Kaleb Joseph follow in their footsteps?
Syracuse has actually started recruiting more point guards based on their fit in the 2-3 zone versus their pro prospects. However, it seems lately, the two have gone hand in hand. The key for these guys has been defense and their length within the zone, but otherwise, they've largely been different types of players. Michael Carter-Williams was lengthy and defense-focused, but was a shoot-first point guard for the most part. Tyler Ennis was an excellent passer and solid defender, and could score when called upon. If Joseph wants to follow in their footsteps, he needs to become a bit more fundamentally sound and really turn himself into a leader on this team. Right now, he's just a freshman. That time will come for him to step up -- hopefully soon.
I predicted Syracuse to be a top 25 team and really challenge for the ACC title in the preseason, although they haven't quite performed at that level thus far. Is that a fair expectation to you?
We thought of ourselves as a fringe top-25 team that would be unlikely to win the ACC, so yeah, for the most part we were aligned there. Now, we obviously haven't met those expectations, largely because the freshmen still need some time to learn, and this team lacks a consistent jump-shooter. If we can't hit shots, this is going to be a very long season for Syracuse... I'll say that.
You guys have had at least 27 wins in each of the last 6 seasons. We would kill for that track record, but does that much success heighten already high expectations as you look to break through and win another title?
It's had a pretty severe impact on expectations for us, in that we've almost forgotten how recently we missed the tournament (2007-08). Every loss feels awful now, and the thought is that we should have a chance to win every game. That's good and bad, and I'd rather have it this way, but it also heightens the stress level involved with rooting for this team. I wouldn't bank on 27 wins this year.
The Orange are on pace for their best defense ever under Jim Boeheim in terms of points per game. What is it about the defense this year that has changed?
Really? That's news to me -- it's also unlikely to be the case by end of year. Boeheim's zone has reached its pinnacle in recent years, but this year's group is a bit of a regression compared to the expert teams of 2012-13 and 2013-14. There are holes all around and they struggle a bit to get back in transition. They're still a very good defensive team, sure. But I'd contend they are a step below recent iterations of Orange basketball -- even if the numbers say otherwise right now.
Rakeem Christmas has really blossomed in his senior season and become one of the nation's best players. Did you expect this jump or were fans taken by surprise?
Christmas has been a slightly frustrating case during his career, but over the offseason, we were told the offense would run through him. We were hopeful that would allow him to take a "leap" as other Orange big men have, and so far, that's worked out pretty well. So no, maybe we didn't expect this MUCH of a jump. But we definitely expected him to be better, and are happy to see his dedication pay off and mirror his physical gifts.
What is the one biggest worry one this team has as Syracuse moves into ACC play and eventually postseason play?
I've mentioned it, but: jump-shooting. Syracuse struggles to hit from outside the paint, and if Trevor Cooney can't get a rhythm going from three (he's been off and on), the team's only real scoring option is Christmas. That's not sustainable, nor is the team's late-game breakdowns amidst defensive pressure. I'm concerned, as are most SU fans.
The fact that this game is on the road is a bit disconcerting, as is the fact that Georgia Tech appears able to match up with us on the boards. That said, Christmas and Chris McCullough should be able to mitigate Tech's strength in the middle and force you guys to beat us with perimeter shooting. This will not be an easy game for either team, but I'll take Syracuse in a very close game, 64-60.