The No. 1-ranked Syracuse Orange will be shooting for a school record 20 consecutive victories Monday night, as they host the Pittsburgh Panthers in a Big East Conference men's basketball showdown at the Carrier Dome (7:30 p.m. on ESPN). The Orange (19-0, 6-0) will also enter the contest atop the college basketball rankings for the sixth consecutive week, a feat that also ties a school record (set in 1989-90) and considering all the programs' historic achievements it needs no embellishment.
However, the "top team" in the nation will begin its week and Monday night's game with a problem. This issue -- a national crisis, shall we say? -- has covertly been a burden on the Orange all season but somehow they have managed, even with the odds stacked against them, to flourish.
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Despite all their success, which has featured the Orange compiling the nation's best RPI against the country's third-toughest schedule, they just aren't passing the "eye-ball test" of the national experts, who need to vote the perfect squad the best program in America but just don't want to.
In fact, according to the pundits -- ESPN's Doug Gottlieb, Hubert Davis and SI.com's Seth Davis to name a few -- the Orange have a few issues keeping them from being a true No. 1 team: First, they haven't been tested on the road (yes, that argument is still being made despite SU earning victories in four different states in its last eight games); they don't have a NBA Draft lottery-caliber player on the roster; but most importantly...
"The biggest question I have about Syracuse right now -- really the only question -- is to what degree this team's biggest strength (balance) becomes its primary weakness (lack of a go-to guy)," wrote Seth Davis last Monday.
Yes, it doesn't matter if SU has nine starters in its rotation -- two of which would be All-American candidates if they received starter minutes -- what really matters most is its lack of a late-game stud, a "dude", an Alpha male, a Mariano Rivera. If the Orange just had "that guy" they could be a true No. 1 team.
Well, for those national talking heads who haven't been watching SU on the regular or maybe just missed Saturday's victory over Providence (obviously Gottlieb did), I'll do you all a favor and share some inside information. The Orange do have a "go-to" player -- Dion Waiters.
|2011 - Dion Waiters||19||22.3||5.1||9.6||52.7||0.9||2.7||35.3||1.8||2.6||70.0||0.4||1.6||1.9||2.9||1.4||2.3||0.4||1.6||12.9|
Now, before you counter with the arguments that Waiters can't be a go-to guy because: A) he's a bench player; B) he's a sophomore (you don't want to go there with Orange fans); and C) he may not even be your best player, so how's he your go-to? Let me fill you in a bit.
Before Syracuse fans' eyes the 6-foot-4, 215-pound sophomore guard is turning into the Orange's best player. This maybe hard to see for a national standpoint because he doesn't play starter minutes and if you're at home flipping channels you could easily miss Waiters' impact on a game -- think in terms of a two-goal lead in hockey which you miss vanish because you went to the fridge for a quick beverage. Bang! The game is tied. You ask yourself, "What the heck just happened? How did I miss that?" That's how Waiters is.
And if you don't believe that Waiters is a viable late-game threat, well here's the video proof (featured first is a pretty setback jumper by Waiters -- which I will discuss later -- but what I'd like you to look at is the second clip visible at the :17 mark).
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Did you see what happened with less than 30 second to go in the second half of the game Saturday night?
Quick recap: The clip doesn't show it but Waiters, the sophomore, was the player who brought the ball up the floor, while senior point guard Scoop Jardine and senior forward Kris Joseph positioned themselves on the wings. In the middle, was backup center Baye Moussa Keita and sophomore forward C.J. Fair -- for bragging purposes only, before the game I predicted this would be the lineup in a last-second situation (come on, you know it's not a stretch to swap Keita for Fab Melo).
After a quick swing pass to Jardine, who gives it right back to Waiters, No. 3 takes off to his left and streaks towards the lane. This is where Waiters creates a shot for Jardine, who receives a kick-out pass from Waiters and drains the buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
What this shows is that Waiters' trust and confidence level with head coach Jim Boeheim and his teammates has reached a level where nobody has an issue with him bringing the ball up the floor and then either taking the game-winning shot or creating it for others.
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The great thing about that play, especially with Waiters at the point position, is there are a lot of options that benefit the Orange, as Waiters can drive then kick-out to Joseph; or Waiters drives and finishes with a floater, a nifty layup or gets fouled (he's a 70-percent free throw shooter); or Waiters lobs the ball up or dishes it off to Melo, Keita or Fair -- who are each very good finishers around the basket; or Waiters pulls up with a NBA-like, set-back jumper. (Told you I'd get back to it.)
To break it down even more, the pieces in this last-second puzzle are almost perfect, as Joseph is very talented but lacks that Carmelo Anthony-like edge to be the one wanting to start the action (bring it up the floor or driving through the lane) in a situation like that. However, Joseph does have the perfect mentality to be the jump shooter -- because that's the skill he believes in most.
As showcased Saturday night, Jardine will be ready and can make that shot. Despite not having the prettiest of the two shooting strokes between him and Joseph, Jardine probably has more confidence than Joseph in making that late-game shot -- a quality that is more beneficial.
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Meanwhile, the inside guys -- Melo, Fair and Keita -- always seem to be at the right place at the right time (especially Fair). When push comes to shove they'll come down with the rebound or tip-in a put-back. (Don't forget Jardine's and Joseph's ability to crash the boards too.)
So, if the national experts have an issue with SU not having a go-to guy, Syracuse proved Saturday that Waiters will be that guy who has the ball in his hands come crunch time -- for the record, Orange fans have no issue with that what-so-ever. However, like most great go-to guys, Waiters has multiple solid options to help him out.
Heck, Michael Jordan had Steve Kerr and ask Lebron James how terrible it feels to have no confidence in your teammates late in a game.
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The funny thing is, the problem with the 2009-10 Syracuse Orange squad, which at one point during their season was ranked No. 1 in the nation and earned a No. 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, wasn't the lack of a go-to guy. They had that in Wesley Johnson, who was fantastic and became a future NBA Draft lottery pick.
The issue with that squad was their depth which was tested when its only true inside option -- Arinze Onuaku -- suffered an injury and couldn't play in the postseason.
Orange fans know how that turned out.
In conclusion, Boeheim was basically right when he said, "I'd rather have four or five (go-to guys) than one." Of course, people, including Syracuse fans, would love for the Orange to have a Carmelo Anthony. However, nobody in the nation right now has a Carmelo Anthony. Yeah, not even Kentucky.
What Syracuse does have is Dion Waiters and, though, he may not be the answer that national pundits would like to hear, he's a perfectly okay solution for Boeheim, the rest of his teammates and Orange nation.
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