For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: the Syracuse Orange.
First things first: Syracuse is undeniably talented.
That will be true whether Fab Melo -- the disappointing No. 1 ranked center in last year's recruiting class -- makes good on his enormous potential or leaves the program all together. (His fate remains uncertain to this point.) The Orange are returning a bevy of major contributors and role players alike.
They also happen to be adding -- no surprise here -- another sterling recruiting class chock full of highly rated athletic prospects, not least of which is big man Rakeem Christmas and shooting guard Michael Carter-Williams, both among the best five players in the 2011 class at their respective positions. If college basketball was a video game (alas, we pour one out for the hoops games of yore), you could plug and play with Syracuse's lineup and probably field a downright dominant pixelated squad.
Unfortunately, things don't quite work that way. You can be loaded at one position -- Kris Joseph, Christmas, Baye Moussa Keita, C.J. Fair and James Southerland make up this team's wings and frontcourt; it's an embarrassment of lanky riches -- struggle in just a few of the wrong areas, and all of a sudden you're much less than the sum of your considerable parts.
That's what it felt like to watch Syracuse in 2011, and it's hard not to put most of the blame on the Orange backcourt. Freshman Dion Waiters showed promise, but clashed with coach Jim Boeheim, so it felt like he never quite hit his stride. Really, the main problems arose from the awkward backcourt pairing of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. The two were prone to taking bad shots, the kind of 17-foot jumpers that are neither here nor there for a team with the kind of interior advantages Syracuse possessed last season.
More than anything, neither plays a true point guard role. Neither is an obvious shooting guard. It was hard not to watch the Orange work for possessions -- especially against the zone, where the Cuse really struggled last season -- and think the team couldn't use one last piece that maybe fit just a little bit better.
But Jardine and Triche aren't entirely to blame. Nor are the struggles against the zone difficult to explain. Frankly, Syracuse just wasn't a good perimeter shooting team, and that hurt it in crucial moments. Strangely enough, while the Orange did excel at scoring inside the arc -- they were the No. 14 team in the nation on 2-point attempts last season -- they ranked merely No. 226 in the nation in free throw rate. When they did get to the line, they shot just 66.5 percent, No. 260 in the country.
These are not the numbers of a fundamentally sound shooting unit. But shooting is easier to improve than, say, athleticism. (As the old saying goes, you can't teach -- well, you know.) If Jardine and Triche work for better shots, the shooting numbers are bound to improve. Carter-Williams is renowned as a deep threat and free throw shooter, so he might be able to help right away.
Really, though, we're not talking about a total team turnaround. We're talking about tiny, almost imperceptible improvements on the perimeter. If Syracuse just gets a little bit better from beyond the arc -- if it makes just a few more of those clanged free throws -- what was already the No. 20 unit in offensive efficiency in 2011 will be tougher to guard than ever. The frontcourt is too talented. The backcourt, by this point, should be too experienced. The maxim goes for every team, but perhaps this one more than most: Every little bit counts.