Syracuse Orange, 1st Quarter Grade: B

Syracuse looked true to typical form in last night’s 78-43 win over Colgate, and improving to just 7-4 on the season. Pivot Rakeem Christmas continued to make his push for some 1st-team ACC votes, with a 16 pt, 11 rebound performance. Just nine days earlier he managed 15 and 15 in a loss to St. John’s. The only thing Christmas hasn’t served up with consistency are those big double-digit rebounding nights. This is going to cause his NBA stock to drop a little if he doesn’t show better instinct. Already this season he has games of 2, 5, and 3 nights of sixes. That’s roughly half the docket where he’s dominant, and half where he’s getting handled in the paint.


Even with a few question marks surrounding their top player, and having played without veteran big-man DaJuan Coleman, the Orange are plagued by their perimeter play this season. Having had such a steady hand at point guard in Tyler Ennis last year, Orange fans must be shell-shocked watching these 20 turnover games. The funny thing, is that Trevor Cooney was there last year, and should be a calming presence. And though it appears he may have regressed on the surface, his numbers are all within a breadth of last year’s, when he was celebrated. He has improved his passing, though he has had a little bit less room to shoot and has seen his long-distance accuracy drop.

With a SOS of 15, and an RPI of 59, even with the shaky start Syracuse still has big aspirations. The road loss at Michigan (who lost consecutive home games to NJIT and Eastern Michigan) will not help at all come selection time, but this team has enough talent to get through the ACC gauntlet and garner an invite, probably even as a top 7 seed.

Note: First quarter only deals with the regular season schedule. We’ll call the postseason overtime when we arrive there this Spring.

Why a B?

You try replacing CJ Fair, Jerami Grant, and Tyler Ennis on the fly with this early season schedule. So far Richmond-product Michael Gbinije has been improving his game nightly on both ends of the floor, replacing some of what CJ Fair provided.

Jerami Grant would have this team in the preseason top five, had he stayed. He is riding pine on the tanking 76ers. Sure the money is nice, but the lack of shine is going to either make him an undervalued asset one day or a forgotten prospect.  His brother Jerian is the front-runner for ACC POTY at Notre Dame. Last year at this time if I had pitched you this story, you likely take the flip side of the coin. You bank on Jerami contributing like some kind of mini Darius Miles someplace. Not Jerian turning into the ACC version of Tiny Archibald (leads in Pts and Assists)

And of course losing Tyler Ennis and his heady, cautious, mature play to the NBA after just one season must have Jim Boeheim wondering if he can get to year 40 on the job (he is after all, at 39 now). Kaleb Joseph is the worst starting PG in the league in TO ratio per SCACCHoops Tempo-Based Statistics. The mantra over the years has been that the ACC is death on young point guards. But I find that to be a fallacy. You have many young PGs fulfill themselves in the ACC. Tyus Jones at Duke for one is having an excellent freshman campaign. Kenny Anderson played pretty well at Georgia Tech, etc. If Syracuse is going to achieve any kind of next level status, it will require Kaleb Joseph to take better care of the ball. In a three-point loss to Michigan the Orange were very sloppy with the rock, and the -12 TO margin likely had a huge impact on the outcome.

The Orange also have a puppy with big paws in freshman Chris McCullough, a versatile 6’10” tweener who is comfortable in many situations. He is rebounding well, and contributing over 13 points a game. If he and Gbinije can continue to produce offense up front, the backcourt can get its feet under it. The latest news has DaJuan Coleman red-shirting the season, so they will be stretched thin up front.

But testing their new nucleus against some power teams early, showing them some different looks, they should be better for this stretch come March. Tom Izzo favors this brutal approach, as did John Chaney in his days at Temple. Take some lumps in these big games early and then take your league by storm. Can the Orange put up another 14-4 ACC campaign? Probably not, but 12-6 is doable.

How Can They Improve Their RPI Before Conference Play?

They can’t. Long Beach State (66) and Cornell (298) won’t register with anyone. The Orange need these two games though. A loss would be unacceptable.

What Does Syracuse Do Well?

  • They protect the rim, ranking 18th in blocked shots. If they had Coleman, this would even be a sight more formidable.
  • With Christmas and McCullough they crash the offensive boards to the tune of 14 a game. These second chance points help off-set the really poor shooting nights that they are capable of.
  • They defend well, just not at the same ELEET level. They rank 22nd in opposing FG%.
  • They know where their bread is buttered: Rakeem Christmas’s usage rate is at 26.1%. They are funneling the offense through him and trying to spot up their shooters. The problem is that Christmas isn’t the quickest decision-maker when passing out of the double team, so it allows the defender that extra split second to return to their shooter.
  • They still get the deflections on the long skip passes, ranking 23rd in steals nationally.
  • Balance: Seven guys average five or more points.

Where Can the Orange Improve?

  • Like most other ACC schools they need to improve their three-point marksmanship, ranking last at 338th. Without Cooney, NOBODY makes three-point shots. Amazingly, SEVEN of the league’s schools are ranked in the 300s in accuracy. This is an elite conference and they haven’t even begun to play the tight defense yet, haven’t even begun to face conference foes.
  • As mentioned prior, cut down on the turnovers that have them in the bottom half of the nation.
  • Offensive aggression. The Orange rank 252 in FT makes. They are far too content to take the path of least resistance, and that path is called the mid-range jumper, something they persist at futilely.
  • Rebounds per 40. For such big guys, Christmas and McCullough could boost these numbers just a bit, and you’d have a few extra points in hand at the end of each game.


Ordinarily, with the way Syracuse has been playing I wouldn’t play the numbers game and just declare them a lock, but at a likely 9-4 entering ACC play, it would be irresponsible to ignore the possibility that a .500 ACC season sees them in MSG instead of Indianapolis.

Teams Syracuse plays twice: VT, Pitt, BC, Duke  (A reasonable man sees 5-3 here, but BC gave Syracuse fits last season).

Teams Syracuse has at home: FSU, Wake, Miami, Louisville, UVA  (I see 4-1 here, with all those warm weather schools coming north and being frozen further by that 2-3 zone).

Teams Syracuse has on the road: Clemson, Notre Dame, NC St, UNC, GT  (I would estimate 3-2 here, with Notre Dame being a real tough one, and the Dean Dome presenting its own issues)

So with a 11-7 or 12-6 mark in the league and a play-in game win in the ACC tournament and you have a strong enough tournament resume.

carl weathers

The Week Ahead

Long Beach State looms on Sunday. They are making the long trip East to play at Syracuse with a 2pm (11am Pacific) start. This game will be one of two final tune-ups before the Orange invade Cassell Coliseum to play the Hokies on January 3rd to open both teams’ ACC campaigns.

I hope everyone is having a safe and wonderful holiday, and that even though many of you folks are off, we are still here trying to make sense of all things ACC for you. We will have more team grades, and more bowl coverage all thru this week.

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