NEW YORK — Syracuse survived Iowa on Friday night, 63-62, as the soon-to-be former No. 23 team in the country got 20 points, 10 boards and three blocks from Chris McCullough, taking home third place in the 2K Sports Classic.
I say survived because Syracuse allowed a not-very-good Hawkeye team to erase a deficit that was as big as 15 points and was 14 with 8:35 left in the game to evaporate. Iowa used a 15-2 run over a five minute stretch to cut the lead to 59-58, and the issues that plague this Syracuse team could not have been more evident; issues that were created by the unexpected early entry of Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant to the NBA.
The Orange don’t have a point guard that they trust. After Thursday night’s loss to Cal, head coach Jim Boeheim made it very clear just how much they miss Tyler Ennis.
“We got spoiled a little bit last year,” Boeheim said. “We had an unusual freshman point guard. They don’t come around. That’s a once in like a coach’s career that you get a freshman that can play with that kind of understanding of the game.”
Kaleb Joseph has a chance to be pretty good down the road, but as of now, he’s an overmatched freshman that is still learning how to run a team at this level. Joseph had three of the seven Syracuse turnovers during the Iowa run, one that was sparked by 1-2-2, one that may not have happened if Joseph was beginning his college career as a backup point guard.
Syracuse also does not have a backup point guard on the roster. The reason that Ennis was able to be a one-and-done freshman was that he starred as the only point guard on the Syracuse roster last season. He was forced into that role when Michael Carter-Williams turned into a lottery pick after his sophomore season, the first year the current Sixer got real minutes for the Orange.
“Kaleb’s a very good freshman point guard,” Boeheim said. “Very talented. But he’s got a lot to learn about the game. And none of this is going to happen by tomorrow, or two weeks after that.”
There’s more to it than simply getting stuck with just one point guard on their roster, however. The Orange have leadership issues. Joseph isn’t ready yet that guy. Neither is McCullough. Can Trevor Cooney? Rakeem Christmas? Michael Gbinije? Only time will tell, but I can say that Ennis would have been that guy.
Along those same lines, there is no go-to guy on this roster. Who do you run a play for when you need a bucket? Who do you trust with the ball in their hands in crunch time? For the last two years, it was C.J. Fair. This season, it would have been Ennis, but he’s gone.
Tonight, Joseph missed a jumper with 25 seconds left on the shot clock in the final minute with the Orange up 61-60. Cooney missed a couple jumpers and had three turnovers of his own during Iowa’s run. The answer might actually be the front line for the Orange — McCullough and Christmas have been quite effective at times scoring in the post — but the key to getting quality post touches is strong guard play.
“Chris and Rak were good, we just got to do a better job of getting them the ball down low,” Boeheim said. “We’ve certainly got a lot of work to do on the offensive end.”
“We realize we’re young,” Joseph said. “A little inexperienced. We made a few mistakes.”
This is the downside of early entry into the NBA Draft. When college basketball teams plan out who they are going to recruit, they do it years in advance. By now, most programs are going to know what positions they need to recruit in the Class of 2017, current high school sophomores, and have a good idea of who, specifically, they want to target. They will have already started the recruiting process for those players and should have a good idea of who they actually have a chance of landing in the Class of 2016, current high school juniors, and they should have at least a couple of commitments for the Class of 2015.
When you suddenly realize in February that you’ll be losing a player that you had planned on having in the program for at least one, if not two or three more years, this is what happens.
“There’s a little bit of pressure, but I think that’ll make me better,” Joseph said, who added that he thinks that being forced into such a major role so early is a good thing for him. There’s no one backing him up, which means he’s going to be forced to play through his mistakes.. “I’ll get tossed into the fire, I’m going to learn on the run. It’s great experience.”
It’s too early in the season to write off the Orange, not when you have the kind of talent up and down the roster that Boeheim does.
But that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start wondering if this is an NIT team.
And if that happens, the blame should fall squarely on Tyler Ennis and the fact that he was better than anyone thought he would be.