The Orange dropped their fourth game in a row on Saturday, but some solace can be taken in that SU looked to have tightened up on defense in the second half, forcing Jimmy Butler to make a couple of tough shots in the closing seconds to sink Syracuse in Milwaukee. During the current losing skid, there’s been a lot of talk about the two main ways in which opponents have shredded the zone – drawing defenders into the paint, which opens passing lanes (Pittsburgh) and hot three-point shooting (Villanova and Seton Hall).
On Saturday, it was a mix, as Jae Crowder was the beneficiary of porous defense, while Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom paced the perimeter attack by each knocking down a pair of threes. However, Marquette also mixed in some penetration, and like Villanova, scored a bundle from the line. The Golden Eagles went to the line 33 times, of which only six came with the motivation of Syracuse getting the ball back as Marquette pulled away. Syracuse, on the other hand, had 14 attempts, and made just more than half. Though it’s understandable for fans to blame the officiating for such a wide free throw disparity, usually, it’s simply a difference in the style of play, and that looked to be the case last weekend.
Another culprit for the difference is the fatigue of SU’s starters, which can subsequently be attributed to the struggling but young bench. Only twice has an SU bench player scored in double figures in Big East play, and both times, it was CJ Fair. Compare that to the first nine games of last season’s conference slate, where someone (usually Kris Joseph) came off the pine to score at least ten points ten times. Now, anyone who followed last year’s team knows how fortunate the Orange was to have a budding star in Kris Joseph and a less burdened Scoop Jardine coming off the bench, but a top-tier Big East team should be getting better production than the paltry contributions of this season’s role players. Dion Waiters’ preferred method of rhetoric during the Seton Hall game only made matters worse, and James Southerland has been so cold lately that he was essentially frozen to his seat. As a result, four SU starters played more than 30 minutes and three totaled at least 38.
While SU would enter unforeseen territory in the long Jim Boeheim era with a fifth consecutive loss Wednesday at UConn, it could just be that there are so few upper-crust teams that nearly every program in the top half of the standings (with the possible exception of Pittsburgh) is bound to take more lumps than usual. Georgetown dropped four in a row to start conference play, but have since reeled off five straight; Villanova beat the Orange soundly, but followed it up with an egg against Providence and a close loss to the Hoyas. Marquette lost four out of six games before beating the Orange. While a staggering nine teams are in the RPI top 25, the conference looks like it’s merely cannibalizing.
The Big East isn’t alone there, however. The Big 12, believed to be a powerful league, might only send four teams to the Big Dance. Complicating things, preseason #3 Kansas State currently stands 2-5 in conference play, and their once-promising center just quit th team as the Wildcats stare down a likely NIT berth; The ACC is looking hollow beyond Duke and surging North Carolina; The SEC is similarly dry, and the Pac-10 is down once again.
Though it probably won’t make fans feel any better about the Orange’s current struggles, the team’s situation is hardly unique once you examine the “upper echelon” of college basketball this season.