The Syracuse Orange are 15-1 with James Southerland.
But they are 4-2 without him.
Whether you want to hear the obvious or not, the Orange are a vastly different team without their senior forward; who was ruled academically ineligible on January 12th. Syracuse has gone from an upper echelon title contender to just as beatable as everyone else in the Big East in a matter of weeks.
The offense has hit rock bottom, scoring less and less, as well as seeing their movement on that end decrease by the game. The defense has been shockingly sub par, tormented by the increased playing time of the inexperienced freshman Jerami Grant.
With an upcoming schedule that features four ranked teams and four road games is it time for concern for Syracuse?
Time will tell, as Southerland has a meeting with the university panel to attempt to regain his eligibility on February 8th. The decision will likely alter the course of the Orange’s season.
Whether Southerland ultimately ends up permanently ineligible or not, it should come as no surprise that the Orange are limping through Big East play without their senior forward.
After all, Southerland is the Orange’s lone threat from three point range. He’s a versatile and experienced defender, and may very well be the difference maker in Syracuse’s half court offense.
Before his academic mishap, you could make a pretty strong case for Southerland being the second most important player in Syracuse’s offense behind point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Jim Boeheim and his well regarded coaching staff has done an excellent job at utilizing Southerland’s proficiency as a shooter to their advantage.
In fact, Southerland’s shooting capabilities were essential in Syracuse’s floor spacing early in the season. Opponents were previously reluctant to collapse their help defense in the paint with the threat of Southerland seeing an open look from three looming large. This opened up the floor for Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche to attack off the dribble or via the on ball screen.
Without Southerland, Syracuse is finding it harder and harder to open up the floor for Carter-Williams and Triche. Opponent defenses, in a similar fashion to Pittsburgh and Villanova, are collapsing their help defense in the paint and forcing Syracuse’s role players to make the open jump shot. So far, they haven’t. Well at least not consistently.
As evident to the Orangemen’s regressions in points per possession (1.12 points per possession to 1.06), offensive efficiency (112 offensive efficiency rating to 106), and effective field goal percentage (50.48% to 47.01%) they haven’t adequately replaced Southerland’s shooting. Jerami Grant has put forth a solid effort , scoring at a pace of ten points per game in Southerland’s absence, but his inconsistent mid-range game has plagued Syracuse on the offensive end.
The mismatches Syracuse was able to create just a mere six games ago has now disappeared. Jim Boeheim no longer has a 6-8 forward who can light it up from three to threaten his oppositions with. See, Syracuse has been rather creative this season in their usage of Southerland. Sure, his usage as a pure shooter may show up the most in the box score, but Jim Boeheim has consistently relied upon his senior as a source to force the opposing defense into mismatches.
What better way to do this than via the screen. Whether it be off-ball or on-ball screens, Syracuse has time and again relied upon screens involving Southerland to hinder their opponents’ defense. Yes, it all comes back to Southerland’s prolific shooting ability.
Since Southerland has been so consistently deadly from three point range this season, the opposition has switched any screens involving Southerland regularly . This results in Southerland’s defender, typically a four, switching onto either Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams. This gives Jim Boeheim’s offense two matchups to exploit. One with Southerland attacking an undersized guard in the paint, and one with Michael-Carter Williams or Brandon Triche attacking an overmatched big off the dribble.
This strategy has quickly become a staple of Syracuse’s offense, and with Southerland now ineligible the Orange are finding it relatively difficult to force the opposition to switch screens. Instead the same opponents who may have switched those screens six games ago are now hedging the on-ball screen, and hedging hard. As a result point guard Michael-Carter Williams has found life very difficult as of late.
The leading candidate for the Big East player of the year has averaged nearly thirteen points per game in Southerland’s absence, but has shot a sub-par 31.3% from the floor. Some blame Carter-Williams’ struggles on his assertion to take on a heavier scoring load without Southerland in the lineup. But it’s the change in the opponent’s ball screen defense that has rattled Carter-Williams of late.
He can no longer rely on taking advantage of a slower footed big man off the bounce, and instead is being forced to get rid of the ball quickly off the ball screen. Teams are taking the ball out of Carter-Williams hands by hedging to the near point of a trap, and it’s frustrated the sophomore at times. As evident to his recent influx of questionable shots and high rate of turnovers in Syracuse’s past six games. “ They were pressuring the lanes and I was able to get open a few times, but we missed a lot of shots,” said Carter-Williams after a 65-55 loss at Pittsburgh this past Saturday. “ If (Brandon) and I don’t shoot the ball well, then we’re not going to win. The games we lost, I think I shot 20 percent or something like that. If I don’t shoot the ball well, we’re not going to win games.”
It is interesting Carter-Williams mentions shooting the ball, because the amount of jump shots he has been forced to take has risen dramatically as of late. When opposing defenses haven’t been hedging hard to take the ball out of Carter-Williams’ hands, they’ve been sending their guards under the ball screen to dare Carter-Williams to beat them with his shaky jump shot. They same has been done to Brandon Triche, and neither has made enough jump shots to stop the defense from doing this.
Which has made it all the more difficult for Syracuse’s deadly backcourt to attack the basket in their half court offense, and with limited options around them the notion isn’t a recipe for success.
Despite all that has gone wrong for Syracuse without James Southerland, they are still ranked ninth in the country and tied atop of the Big East standings with Marquette. The Orange are optimistic they can find a way to win without their three-point marksman.
“ I still think we can reach our potential,” said junior C.J. Fair after a 72-61 victory over Villanova on January 12th. “ It’s a huge blow to our team. We just have to find another way to make up for the points he would usually score, and I think we are on the right track.”
Fair may think that Syracuse is on the right track, but recent road losses to Pittsburgh and Villanova may have changed that train of thought. One thing is for sure, getting James Southerland back in a Syracuse uniform would get Syracuse back on the right track.