This may sound crazy, but the Syracuse Orange have the talent on its roster to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament this year. The team’s talent can compete with some of college basketball’s best, but coaching decisions don’t allow for the talent to completely shine through. It’s been a rocky season for Jim Boeheim and company, but let’s not close the book on the team from Central New York just yet.
In college basketball this year, it’s obvious. Every team is chasing Gonzaga and Baylor. Although Syracuse doesn’t stand a chance in hell at beating either Gonzaga or Baylor, a deep run into the postseason is attainable. However, in order for the Orange to reach the Sweet 16 or further, three things need to change.
1. Kadary Richmond needs to be the starting point guard
If you told Jim Boeheim he had a 6’ 5’’ guard with a 6’ 9’’ wingspan that can knife through defenses and attack the rim, he would be starting in a heartbeat. Well, Boeheim has that in Kadary Richmond, but the freshman only sees about 15-20 minutes per game. If you could mold someone to play at the top of Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, Richmond is what you would produce.
Richmond not starting is even more astonishing when you consider the fact that an undersized guard is starting in his sport. Sophomore Joe Girard III is a great shooter, but playing him over Richmond immediately takes away from Syracuse’s defense. Despite getting limited minutes, Richmond still averages 1.7 steals per game and gets an absurd amount of deflections. His havoc at the top of the zone is a nightmare for opposing offenses.
On the offensive end, it’s clear Syracuse is better when Richmond is at point. His ability to get to the rim opens up everything else. Girard deserves to get 20-25 minutes, but only 8 of those minutes should come at point guard. Imagine an offense where Richmond drives and kicks to Girard and Buddy Boeheim for 3. Instead, Girard is primarily at point, forcing Syracuse to rely on Girard and Buddy to create their own shots. Girard’s and Buddy’s shooting percentages are suffering because of this decision in the lineup.
The numbers do all the talking. In 312 minutes of court time for Richmond this season, Syracuse is +76; during those minutes, Syracuse has outscored opponents by more than 14 points per 100 possessions, according to Pivot Analysis. Richmond is efficient on offense due to his style of play. Shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, he brings a lot more to the table than Girard. The offense flows better and he adds length on defense. When Kadary gets the keys to the offense, fans will see the Orange’s true potential. Syracuse doesn’t stand a chance in March if Kadary is coming off the bench.
Hear more on Kadary Richmond from the Cali to Cuse: Up in the Rafters podcast:
2. Sidibe needs to get healthy
Now, this may be a longshot, but if senior center Bourama Sidibe can come back healthy, the Syracuse defense becomes solid on the inside. As my co-host on Cali to Cuse Andrew “Papi” Carey would say, “Sidibe has potato knees.” It may be wishful thinking on my part, but if Sidibe is healthy, watch out.
Syracuse’s defense currently features senior Marek Dolezaj at center, and that’s an issue. Sidibe and Dolezaj are both 6’ 10’’, but Sidibe has 20 pounds on Dolezaj. Marek is a great player, but he is not a true center. Dolezaj is averaging 5.5 rebounds this year and stands no chance against some of the bigs in the ACC.
Sidibe played only 4 minutes in the season opener against Bryant before suffering a torn meniscus. Originally, it was said to be a 4-week recovery, but somehow 4 has turned into 9. On the bright side, the Syracuse big man has finally shown signs of returning to the court. Sidibe was recently seen warming up, so maybe he can come back soon and be ready for the big dance in March.
Sidibe’s impact could be huge for Syracuse because the Mali native was expected to have a breakout season. In his junior year, Bourama only averaged 6.0 ppg and 7.6 rpg. However, fans were left wanting more when Sidibe averaged 9.8 points and 11.7 rebounds over the final 6 games of the season. If Sidibe can continue to provide double digit rebounds, it solves Syracuse’s biggest problem. Syracuse currently ranks 197th in rebound rate, and rebounding seems to be the deciding factor in Syracuse basketball games. The Orange are undefeated when they grab more boards than their opponent, but are just 2-5 when they get outrebounded.
Sidibe can provide a needed boost on the glass, and he gives ‘Cuse a real presence down low. If and when Sidibe is back, Dolezaj can start playing his natural position again and the whole team benefits. It’s a long shot, but I wouldn’t count Sidibe out yet, it’s his senior season.
3. The 3-point shooting needs to improve
As a team, Syracuse is shooting 31.6 percent from 3, which ranks 244th in the country. Despite the poor percentage, the Orange still shoot a ton of 3s. Syracuse averages 25.1 attempts from long range per game, which ranks 54th in the nation. If the Orange are going to commit to the 3 they have to start making them, it’s that simple.
The 3-point shot is the great equalizer in basketball. If Syracuse can start knocking them down at a respectable clip, they have a chance to pull off upsets come tournament time.
Fans know junior Buddy Boeheim can shoot it from deep, but his shot has been inconsistent this season. After shooting 37.0 percent from deep as a sophomore, Boeheim’s percentage from 3 has dipped to 29.5 percent as a junior. Basketball is turning more and more into a shooter’s game and Syracuse needs to improve from 3 in order to make a deep run, and It starts with Buddy.
The 3-point struggles may be due to the choice at starting point guard as well. With Girard at point, Syracuse turns into an isolation team, making it difficult on their shooters. If Kadary is running point, the shooters can play their natural positions and just catch and shoot all day.
Syracuse has the talent to compete with the best. Injuries can derail any team, and Syracuse needs its big man back. Kadary has a chance to transform the offense, but Jim Boeheim needs to trust him. Quincy Guerrier has pro potential and can carry Syracuse if the offense becomes stagnant. This smells like a classic Syracuse team that squeaks into the tourney then makes a run.
However, before the Orange can go on the aforementioned run in March, they have to get into the tourney. The bubble is becoming a familiar spot for Syracuse, and 2021 is no different. At 10-5 (4-4), Syracuse is 7th in the ACC. ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi does not have Syracuse in his projected field of 68. The Orange are not considered to be one of the first 4 teams out either, so they have some major work to do.
Looking at its resume, Syracuse is 1-3 against Quad 1 teams, and is ranked 51st in the NCAA’s NET Rankings. ‘Cuse really needs to pick up 1 or 2 more Quad 1 wins in order to secure a spot in the tourney. The problem is, the Orange are running out of opportunities to get big wins because the ACC is down this year. As the NET Rankings currently stand, Syracuse only has 4 more opportunities at a Quad 1 win. Sadly for the Orange, all those opportunities come on the road, where the Orange are 1-4. Syracuse’s struggles on the road will need to change in a hurry if they want to play deep into March.
Opportunities left for Syracuse to pick up Quad 1 wins:
- Saturday, February 6th @ Clemson
- Wednesday, February 17th @ Louisville
- Monday, February 22nd @ Duke
- Saturday, February 27th @ Georgia Tech
I know a lot of Syracuse fans have written off the Orange for 2021, but not so fast. Syracuse has proven to make runs deep into the tourney as an underdog, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is another one of those years. Sidibe needs to get healthy, Kadary needs to start and Jim Boeheim needs to trust his players. As a fan, my optimism may be getting to me, but you can hear the other half of the argument every Friday on the Cali to Cuse podcast.