For all pragmatic intentions, the regular season and conference tournament are dress rehearsals for the Real Thing. Perhaps that explains the almost restrained reaction that Jim Boeheim has to what appears to be a late-season swoon.
But the Syracuse University coach has been around the block for so long – long enough for four Final Fours and a national championship – not to overreact to a few losses. His mood these days is more late autumn than mid-March.
Coming into Thursday’s second-round matchup against No. 14 seed Western Michigan (23-9) in the NCAA Tournament, the third-seeded Orange (28-6) have dropped five of their last seven games.
Syracuse entered last month ticketed for a return trip to the Final Four, even considered the nation’s top team in some quarters. Most of those expectations were predicated on the continued development of scorers alongside C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis – Jerami Grant and Trevor Cooney in particular.
“Jerami Grant has made some plays, Trevor Cooney has made some plays, we’ve had multiple guys make plays,” Boeheim said. “I think that’s been the key for us having different guys – two primary guys – but having four or five guys making big plays for us and that’s been the difference.”
But the offense, which has sputtered from time-to-time during the Boeheim era, had to be nurtured.
“We won a lot of games at the beginning of the year and we just made plays down the stretch,” Boeheim said. “Even in the games we’ve lost – Boston College and Duke, the two close games we lost – we made great plays down the stretch.”
The Orange win games with panache and/or perseverance. Ranked No. 1 for most of the season, they staggered in mid-February and early March, losing back-to-back games against Boston College and Duke after winning a school record 25 consecutive games. Syracuse barely defeated Maryland on the road before dropping games to Virginia and Georgia Tech. They downed Florida State on the road before falling to North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament.
While essentially playing its way out of a top seed, Syracuse seems as judicious a Final Four prospect as any in a field without a dominant team. Ennis is a top-flight point guard and Fair is one of the country’s top seniors.
“We have a thing for closing out games,” Ennis said. “We have a lot of weapons and we have all the pieces. We have to click at the right time and last year that’s what they were able to do.”
One key, however, is the play of Grant, a sophomore forward. A willowy talent with an immeasurable wingspan, Grant is an outstanding rim protector and a crossover dribble away from blossoming into a high NBA Lottery pick as a forward. He’s been hampered by a sore back since the Duke game on Feb. 22 which coincides with the Orange’s late-season dip.
“I don’t think the team has ever been in a slump but without Jerami Grant we certainly weren’t as good as we’d like to be,” Boeheim said. “I think we played pretty consistently all year but I think there’s a couple of games we didn’t shoot it as well as we would have liked, but every team in the country loses games and virtually every team losses two or three games. Sometimes your schedule gets really hard and that’s what happened with us. But overall we’ve played consistently well all year.”
The son of former NBA player Harvey Grant, Jerami didn’t play in the second half of the Maryland and Virginia games and sat out the Georgia Tech game entirely. He returned against the Seminoles with 16 points and eight rebounds.
“He’s kind of a challenge for most power forwards because he can play you inside, he can play you outside, he’s very quick and very athletic,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “He plays above the rim and has a nice mid-range jump shot and he has the ability to draw fouls. He’s just a tough matchup for anybody. He’s a runner, he’s quick, fast, plays hard, and he gives them a guy who can protect the rim. When you’re in position, he’s such a superior athlete, that you can block him out but he has such long arms that he can get the ball and keep it live. He’s a very tough matchup.”
Said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey: “Jerami being back tells you how important he is. For Syracuse to be who they’ve been most of the season, they have to have Jerami healthy.”
It also isn’t a coincidence the Orange’s offensive shortcomings are tied to the shooting of Cooney. When he’s coming off screens or playing in transition, Cooney at times can be a dead-eye shooter. He poured in 27 points against Cornell in the opener, 23 against California, 21 in wins over Indiana and Villanova. In a 39-minute shooting exhibition against Notre Dame, Cooney went 9 of 12 from long distance – 11 of 15 overall – for a season-high 33 points in a 61-55 win. He was connecting on 43.5 percent of his three-point attempts when trouble struck.
Cooney’s hit double figures just once in the last eight games and is only 12 of 51 from long range during that span.
“I’m getting good shots, I’m getting the same shots,” Cooney said after the loss to Georgia Tech when he finished 1 of 8 from three-point range. “Obviously, I don’t know what it is. I can go back and watch film, I doubt I will though. I’ve just got to keep shooting.”
He’s been urged by assistant coach Gerry McNamara to become more of a north-south player instead of east-west. Basically, McNamara’s message is when the jumper isn’t falling, go get a layup. He’s certainly a gravity cheater to some renown.
“He’s been just a little off but I think he’s ready to go now, and I think he’s fine,” Boeheim said. “He’s had some bad shooting games but people play him and he’s had some good looks he hasn’t been quite as productive.”
Still, Boeheim likes how Cooney’s playing in the front of the Orange zone.
“He’s still second in the league in steals,” Boeheim said. “He’s kept his aggression, he’s kept his attitude and I feel like he’s a guy who can make shots anytime. He can get on a streak and get on a roll anytime.”
That’s the hope because the Orange tend to lean heavily on Fair and Ennis for offense. In the Georgia Tech loss, they scored 46 of the team’s 62 points. There was the N.C. State loss in the ACC Tournament when Fair went cold — 3 of 16 for nine points — and the Orange received just six points from their reserves.
“You have to have people step up,” Boeheim said. “On average if you’re in really truly close games, meaning tied or you’re a little behind or just very little ahead, at the end you’re going to come out those games 50-50 a lot.”
The Orange are not like other teams, not with their fusion of a continually worrisome 2-3 zone defense and typical rim attackers. Besides, Syracuse lost eight of his final 16 games heading into the NCAAs last season and still advanced to the Final Four. Maybe there isn’t anything to worry about.