Climbing to No. 1 has become customary for Syracuse, and this week marks the third time in five seasons.
After eight weeks at No. 2 behind Arizona, reaching the top spot was a mere formality, part of a near perfect setup for a date at the Final Four in April. First a trip to First Niagara Center as a top seed in the second and third rounds, followed by the East Regional in Madison Square Garden, then a coronation at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Orange won’t leave the state before the Final Four.
But there’s still plenty of basketball to be played and as the dog days of February drag on game after game, winter storm warning after winter storm warning, areas of concern are bound to be revealed. Syracuse, like everyone else in the sport, is not invulnerable and here are some points of note as the Orange head into the final stretch of the season:
• The further you go down Syracuse’s remaining schedule, the harder it gets to fathom an unblemished regular season. Five of the Orange’s last eight games are on the road with no sure-fire wins. Pittsburgh, which looked just as good as the Orange a few weeks ago? The Duke rematch? Virginia, which has one ACC loss? Florida State or Maryland, who are always tough at home? That No. 1 seed isn’t looking like a lock now, is it?
• Of the highly publicized freshmen throughout the country, Orange point guard Tyler Ennis has been the most consistent. He has the court presence of a young Mark Jackson and plays with the poise and savvy of a seasoned veteran and is an upgrade over Michael Carter-Williams, who could end up being the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. But there’s only been a handful of freshman point guards to lead their teams to the national championship. The most recent is Kentucky’s Marquis Teague in 2012 and before him was the Orange’s Gerry McNamara in 2003. As good as Ennis has been this season, the odds of him guiding Syracuse to the national championship are stacked against him.
• Possessions are valuable in the postseason and when the game slows in the final minutes of a close game, the Orange’s lack of low-post scoring could be exposed. It’s the kind of flaw that could plague Syracuse if Trevor Cooney stumbles into one of his shooting funks. The Orange need Cooney to play like he did against Notre Dame and Duke (16 for 23 shooting) and not Wake Forest and Pitt (4 for 17).
Arizona loses Ashley
We’re about to learn just how valuable Brandon Ashley was to Arizona. Ashley, out for the season with a broken foot, blossomed into an efficient pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop player after coming to Arizona as a slasher and player who scored off putbacks. Ashley, who averaged 11.5 points and shot .379 from three-point range, also improved as a shooter to the point where he became a legitimate threat from long distance. The Wildcats’ merciless defense shouldn’t take a hit – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Ashley’s replacement, is a better defender – but Arizona’s offensive productivity is limited minus Ashley.
UMass in a tailspin
Massachusetts is slipping badly. The Minutemen were 16-1 out of the gate, but have dropped three of four heading into Wednesday night’s home game against La Salle. St. Bonaventure had the right formula to beat the Minutemen: Limit turnovers, hit the glass at both ends, which hinders Chaz Williams, UMass’ blur of a point guard, and the team’s ability to fill the lanes on the break. Bona outrebounded the Minutemen, 45-35, and committed just 14 turnovers in their 78-65 upset last week.
Kentucky needs Willie Cauley-Stein to stop sleepwalking. The son of former Niagara Falls big man Willie Cauley finally registered a pulse in Tuesday’s game against Ole Miss with 18 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks but in the six previous games he totaled 14 points, 19 rebounds and nine blocks. The Ole Miss game is more indicative of his ability.
Cyclones on a roll
A favorable schedule has Iowa State (17-4) on the verge of a 25-win season. Four of the Cyclones’ next six games – TCU, Texas Tech, Texas and West Virginia – are at home and the road games are West Virginia (5-4) and TCU (0-9). Iowa State was 32-5 in 1999-00 and 25-6 the following season under Larry Eustachy. Iowa State is also a good sleeper pick for the Final Four because it creates matchups that are difficult to defend. Georges Niang, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound center, initiates the offense whenever 6-4 point guard DeAndre Kane plays against smaller guards and works in the low post. Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones will be a tough out indeed.
Floyd thrives at UTEP
It’s hard to overlook the job Tim Floyd is doing at UTEP. Since the dismissal of McKenzie Moore, the team’s leading scorer, Jalen Ragland and Justin Crosgile early last month for gambling, the Miners lost to Charlotte then won six in a row. UTEP is tied with Southern Mississippi atop the Conference USA standings at 6-1. And this was long after McDonald’s All-American Isaac Hamilton reneged on his commitment and decided to attend UCLA. Floyd is a cutthroat recruiter and the USC scandal certainly didn’t enhance his reputation, but the guy can flat out coach.
Smart losing his touch
Where have you gone, Marcus Smart? Oklahoma State’s star guard appeared destined to become a top three pick in the NBA next summer, but Smart’s shooting percentage has plummeted of late. Over his last five games, he’s shooting a frosty .266 from the field and averaging 15.4 points. Shooting has never been his strong suit – he shot .404 overall and .290 from long distance a year ago – but one of the reasons he returned for his sophomore season was to improve his outside stroke. He’s pressing and the Cowboys, who have dropped three straight, are fading.
Beware the Aztecs
Let’s give some love to San Diego State (19-1). Steve Fisher’s Aztecs won 18 straight heading into Wednesday night’s game at Boise State with quality victories over Creighton, Marquette, Washington and Kansas. They haven’t lost since falling to then No. 6 Arizona on Nov. 14 and are the national leaders in field-goal defense (.362). Sounds like a team vying for a No. 1 seed.
email: rmckissic@ buffnews.com