Jim Boeheim is back. Now what?
Last Saturday, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim spent one of the final days of his nine-game NCAA suspension with ESPN's Jay Bilas. Together, they watched Syracuse's 64-51 loss at Miami. The conditions of Boeheim's punishment forbid contact with his team; he can't swing by practice or talk to his players or share notes with assistant coach Mike Hopkins. All he can do is watch.
And man, does he hate it. He basically tells Bilas as much in their conversation, but he doesn't need to. It's plain to see. Example: Point guard Michael Gbinije throws a horrendous, behind-the-back pass off a pick-and-roll, and Boeheim reacts like a wistful Guns N' Roses die-hard who just saw the latest public photo of Axl Rose. ("Oh, no, no, NO!") After 50 years of playing a major role in the outcome of Syracuse basketball games, Boeheim finds himself on the couch, like any other fan, with nothing to do but hope for the best.
At 8 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN, No. 6-ranked North Carolina comes to the Carrier Dome, and Boeheim, suspension served, will be off the couch and back on the sideline. He will be coaching his players, adjusting his tactics, working the refs. He will be making an impact.
The question with this struggling Syracuse team is whether that impact will be enough to matter.
At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Before the suspension began, the Orange were 6-1. They won the Battle 4 Atlantis with back-to-back wins over UConn and Texas A&M, the latter of whom beat a full-strength Gonzaga team in the opposite semifinal. The Orange's only loss -- at home versus Wisconsin -- was the product of an awful shooting night, in overtime, and hey, it happens, right?
Since then, the Mike Hopkins-led Orange lost at Georgetown (which has lost to Radford, UNC Asheville and Creighton on its own floor). They lost by 12 to a team (St. John's) that has gone 0-6, including home losses to Incarnate Word and NJIT, in its six games since. And then Syracuse started ACC play with three straight losses: at Pitt (forgivable), at Miami (totally forgivable) and at home to Clemson on Tuesday (not forgivable).
The apparent gulf between those two versions of the 2015-16 Orange would seem to suggest that Boeheim's impact is exceedingly real. And why not? He's Jim Boeheim. He has won a gazillion basketball games. Of course he matters.
NCAA tournament selection committee chair Joe Castiglione seems to think so. On Thursday, he told the Syracuse Post-Standard that the committee would take into account the Orange's relative performance with and without Boeheim, the same way it considers a team's performance (and grants less weight to certain results) before, during and after a star player's injury. If Syracuse is noticeably better with Boeheim back, the past month's struggles might not matter at all. There's plenty of room for the Orange to turn this thing around.
The only problem with this premise? Syracuse just might not be that good.
The past month has laid bare the same flaws that diluted the Cuse's expectations in the fall. Like, for example, Syracuse lacking a genuine point guard, and using the 6-foot-7 Gbinije as its primary ballhandler instead. Gbinije has performed admirably, considering he spent most of his career as a shooting guard (or small forward), and he's working hard in huge minutes, but he is prone to the kind of turnovers that smother SU's possessions in the crib. The Orange have turned the ball over on 19.1 percent of their possessions in ACC play; only Boston College is sloppier.
Syracuse is also unusually thin as far as depth is concerned: Its starters have all played 450 minutes or more this season. Its top reserve, forward DaJuan Coleman, is the only bench player with more than 19. In 16 games! Meanwhile, Coleman's promise as a much-needed, front-line big has been limited by years of injuries and rehabilitations, and the matchup problems created by 6-foot-8 forward Tyler Lydon (a 42 percent 3-point shooter) are diminished by suspect rebounding and few reliable interior scoring options.
Shooting is the biggest problem, and arguably the biggest difference, between the Syracuse that won the Battle 4 Atlantis and the one that has gone 4-5 in its past nine. Syracuse's wins over UConn and A&M were in large part the result of a 20-of-45 combined mark from long range. The Orange have kept right on shooting from deep -- 43.4 percent of their field goal attempts come from beyond the arc -- but they're shooting just 35.4 percent on the season. Throw in a 46.7 percent mark from 2-point range, and what you get is a short rotation with an out-of-position point guard that needs to make 3s to for its offense to work, and is merely OK at doing so.
It's hard to blame Hopkins for those problems. It's just as hard to figure out how Boeheim's presence could solve them. The Carrier Dome will erupt for Boeheim's return Saturday, and he will relish the reclamation of his direct impact on the game.
But he can't make shots. Until Syracuse can, the presence of its coach -- even a Hall of Fame coach such as Boeheim -- can only go so far.
Highest potential for overreaction
You'd think wins at Vanderbilt and over No. 9 Kentucky would be impressive enough, especially given LSU's combined margin of victory (26 points) and the more balanced and improved play it displayed in both games. And you'd be right. It was impossible to come away from the Tigers' romp Tuesday night and not feel differently about Ben Simmons & Co. Perhaps a moribund 7-5 start against an awful nonconference schedule hadn't doomed LSU just yet; perhaps, with Craig Victor II and Keith Hornsby in the lineup, the Tigers could be more than set dressing for Simmons' highlights on Vine.
This rapid perceived turnaround could be undone just as quickly as it arrived with a loss at Florida on Saturday. Florida's not nearly as bad as most people probably think: Despite a 9-5 record and the dearth of attention accompanying it, the Gators happen to be one of the country's best defensive teams. It's a tough game. We'd be more impressed if LSU won than discouraged if it lost. But anyone unaware of the challenge Florida presents might overreact again if the Tigers disappoint in Gainesville.
Toughest conference road game against a team no one knows is pretty good
USC is 13-3. Its only losses have come to Xavier, Monmouth and Washington, the latter of which was a two-point road loss on Sunday. The Trojans shoot 41 percent from 3; their opponents shoot 41.6 percent from 2. This is a good team. Texas Tech, meanwhile, is 11-2 with losses to Utah and Iowa State and ranks 22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. This is also a good team. At any point in the past five years, the idea that Arizona or Kansas had much to fear from USC or Texas Tech on the road in conference play would seem silly. Ho-hum, right? But it's true in 2015-16. All the Trojans and Red Raiders need are the wins to prove it.
Biggest reclamation project
On Dec. 19, at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis, Butler beat then-No. 9 Purdue 74-68. It was one of the more impressive nonconference wins of the season for any team -- an undersized, offensively thrilling Bulldogs team executing an intelligent game plan against the best defensive team in the country (and there's no close second). Butler jumped to No. 9 in the polls, setting up the second top-15 matchup in Hinkle Fieldhouse history, a New Year's Eve game against Providence. Butler lost, 81-73. Two days later, the Bulldogs traveled to Xavier -- which lost by 31 at Villanova on Dec. 31 -- and submitted their worst offensive performance of the season in an 88-69 loss. Just like that, any post-Purdue notion of Butler as a real national title contender evaporated. The Bulldogs may not get that back for a while, if ever. But a win over Villanova on Saturday would be a start.
Most frightening offense
Speaking of Butler's opponent: That 95-64 New Year's Eve win over Xavier was the product of an absolutely soaking wet 13-for-25 night from 3. (Well, partially: Nova also made 23 of its 32 2s and assisted on 69.4 percent of its possessions. Basically, it did everything right.) That felt like the release of a high-energy thunderstorm. For weeks, even as the misses piled up, the Wildcats had shown all the signs of being a great perimeter shooting team, from their elite 2-point field accuracy to the sheer fact that they were obviously undeterred by their misses. At some point, the clouds would break open, and the great Villanova shooting correction of 2015 would commence. For Big East opponents, it was scary stuff. Then the Wildcats went 6-for-18 against Creighton and 4-of-22 from deep against Seton Hall in their next two games, both wins, and now we have no idea what to expect. In some ways, that's even scarier.
Most unlikely historical chase
On Tuesday night, the South Carolina Gamecocks did something they hadn't managed in four seasons: They won an SEC opener. That's a slightly arbitrary statistic, sure, but in SC's case, it illustrates a straightforward point: The Gamecocks are usually bad. Now get this: If Frank Martin's team beats Vanderbilt on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, ESPNU), it will be 15-0. That's two wins shy of last season's overall win total. It's also two wins shy of the only other Carolina team to start the season with a better record -- in 1933-34. Crazy.