It's been a couple of days now since Oklahoma took Syracuse behind the woodshed and ended the Orange's 2008-09 season. I didn't post anything on the game because there wasn't much to add. It doesn't take a genius to understand that Syracuse didn't make shots -- many of them wide open -- and Oklahoma did. Plus OU has the best player in country and that always helps.
So, with the season over and the next one 8 long months away, it seems appropriate to offer a few opinions on how things played out and speculate on what lies ahead. This post turned out to be really long, so if you've got a short attention span, just check back later - we'll see if we can find a video of someone getting hit in the nuts for you. For those that are still with me, let's get going.
Ride the Roller Coaster
The season began with the Orange coming off back to back NIT appearances, unranked, and filled with question marks. Would Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf make full recoveries from ACL injuries? Would SU be able to at least slow down teams on the defensive end? How would they react to a tougher than normal out of conference schedule?
Before Christmas we got answers to all these questions and they were the answers we were looking for. Early season wins over Florida and Kansas, followed up by a win on the road against Memphis, demonstrated the team could handle a tougher December schedule. They also demonstrated that Rautins and Devo were back. The defense, while not great, was better -- and varied -- as the team played both man to man and zone and at times played each well. The only hiccup was a home loss to Cleveland State on a 60 foot shot at the buzzer. Its worth noting that the Vikings would go on to win a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The strong start ultimately kept Syracuse out of the dreaded "bubble" conversation when they were struggling through their mid-season slump.
Once the Big East started the Orange continued their strong play by beating 4 lower-echelon Big East teams -- getting through the "soft" part of their conference season unscathed. While beating teams they should beat isn't normally a reason to get excited, it was telling. There were no bad losses this year. The team proved early that they weren't going to give away games that would come back to haunt them. This hadn't been the case the previous few years. Expectations quickly rose.
However, rough seas were ahead. Syracuse went through a brutal stretch of conference games, going 3-7 against the best teams in the best conference in America. Arinze Onuaku has hurt, Eric Devendorf turned the ball over more than Josh Wright and Michael Edwards combined, and the Orange couldn't get a stop when they needed one. In fact they couldn't get a stop ever, during one 3 game stretch they managed to give up 100 more more points twice.
With the Orange struggling, the dreaded NIT whispers starting, and a fan base beginning to melt down, SU did something they haven't done the past two seasons -- they righted the ship. The Orange won 9 out of 10 going into the Oklahoma game, including the epic 6 OT battle against UConn. In a season that was on the verge of collapse, the team took a step back from the brink, gathered itself, and played its best basketball of the season. It was a statement that Syracuse basketball is back.
In a lot ways, the roller coaster season was also a season of redemption for many individual players. Kristof Onganeat, a favorite of fans and bloggers everywhere, came into the season having finished his junior year strong. His hustle, rebounding, desire and willingness to do the dirty work endeared him to all.
Once the season got rolling however, things weren't so smooth. Around the rim the Waffle was stale. He couldn't finish a thing, missing lay up after lay up. It got to the point where teams didn't have to guard him and he found himself mired at the end of Boeheim's bench. We all thought we'd seen the end of meaningful minutes for our favorite Belgian import. We were wrong. During that 3-7 stretch, opportunity knocked on Kris' door, and he answered.
The lay ups started going in, the hustle and desire were stronger than ever, and Kristof became the glue that held the resurregent Orange team together. Plus, he wasn't afraid to drop a hard foul on someone going to the rim. His toughness and desire were part of the cure to what ailed the Orange. SU wouldn't have had their season ending run with his contributions.
Likewise, the man everyone loves to hate, Eric Devendorf, redeemed himself as well. A season that started under a cloud of controversy devolved into discpiplinary proceedings, a 2 game suspension and a return to the court that included more turnovers than positive plays. It culminated with a 9 turnover game against Providence. But a funny thing happened down the stretch, Devo cut down his turnovers, starting making more shots than ever and became a lethal offensive weapon for the Orange. Likewise, Andy Rautins rebounded from a knee injury and a slow start to become the dangerous outside shooter the team could have sorely used the year before. His overall game is something that's overlooked at times, but Andy proved this year he is a heady player, an adept passer and someone that's poised to truly breakout next year.
When talking about the invidual performances of this team, Jonny Flynn is the first guy you have to talk about. He clearly improved on a fantastic freshman year, becoming more of a team leader, a true floor general, and a guy that is quick enough to get to the rim on anyone. If he decides to come back next year, Syracuse starts the season in the top 10.
Arinze had a solid, not spectacular season. He needs to work on making quicker decisions in the post, free throw shooting (obviously) and down the stretch his conditioning looked like it could use some work. However, he is a solid, solid big man, and they are hard to find. There's no reason to believe he won't be even better next year either.
The enigma that is Paul Harris continued this year. The victim of being overhyped coming out of high school, Harris again showed stretches of dominance matched by stretches of being AWOL. I am as guilty as anyone of taking him for granted when he's playing well, and getting on him when he's not. Why that is, I'm not sure. His jumper, while flat as a pancake is improving, while his decision making remains questionable. He has a ton of talent, and broad shoulders to take the verbal beating Boeheim delivers, but next year is make or break for Paul.
Rick Jackson got better as the season went along. He's already got an array of low post moves and a willingness to rebound. If he can continue to get stronger, and add a 12 foot jump shot to his game, watch out.
I've already touched on Andy, Eric, and Kristof. The jury is still out on the young guys on the roster. Mookie Jones was shut down with a hip injury, but before that, he showed a quick trigger and the makings of a good shooting stroke, but it was clear he wasn't quite ready for major college basketball. He could become a very good college player or a complete bust - I have absolutely no feel for how his career is going to play out.
Kris Joseph struggled down the stretch and didn't play much, but early in the season he displayed a well rounded game. You have to believe he will develop into a solid player as his career progresses. He reminds me of a more athletic Ryan Blackwell.
The Present and Future
There are very rare occurences when a sweet 16 appearance can be considered a disappointing and this season was not one of them. While the blow out loss to Oklahoma was a tough way to end the year - this team showed heart and guts that ulimately made this an enjoyable, and successful season.
We don't know exactly what next year's team will look like, but we will know soon enough. Regardless of what happens, there is no arguing that next year's team will be good, and deeper than it's been in years. Adding Wesley Johnson, Scoop Jardine, a healthy Mookie Jones and a cast of 3 recruits to this squad virtually assures us all that this team is going to be good for years to come.
In the future we may very well look back at this season, and the run they put together to end the season, and see it as the prelude to a great run. I certainly hope so. This turned out to be a solid season and the future is bright for Syracuse basketball.