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Otto Can Smile Again

November 19, 2008 - John Whittaker

The night the Syracuse Orange won their only NCAA basketball championship in 2003, I had to cover a City Council meeting.

I made it out of the office by about 8:20 and flew home to Blockville to catch the game with my brother Matt, who is as rabid a 'Cuse fan as I am.

We cheered in the first half when Gerry McNamara drilled six 3-pointers. We cheered when Josh Pace slithered his way into the lane for his patented little runner. We high-fived when Jeremy McNeil blocked shots or when Craig Forth came down with a big rebound. We knew the game was in the bag when Carmelo Anthony took over down the stretch.

I think it was a little dusty in the living room when the Cuse cut down the nets after the game. Thinking of that game, five years later, still makes me smile.

I share this with you because I think Jim Boeheim needs to pop a tape of that 2003 championship game, or any of the NCAA Tournament games from that year, into the VCR for this year's Orange.

Individually, this is the most talented Orange squad in the last five years - perhaps even more talented, position by position, than that championship team. Jonny Flynn is one of the top five point guards in the country. Eric Devendorf can shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor and take it to the basket almost at will. Paul Harris is a physical beast who can rebound with anyone. Arinze Onuaku might only be 6-9, but he's going to play in the NBA. He's good. The freshmen Boeheim added to this team, Kris Joseph and Mookie Jones, look like they can play.

But, as a team, my boys leave something to be desired.

Through two games, they've shown a propensity to let up once they get a lead - a trait that will hurt them in the Big East. Man-to-man defense is a weakness despite their individual talents. Offensively, the pieces don't mesh. They play with no flow. Everybody will get their points, and most nights that will be enough to win.

But, if they want to make a dent in the Big East and do damage in the NCAA Tournament, the Orange need to play better as a team. The good thing is, we're only two games into the season. The more these guys play together, the more they'll gel, I hope.

By position, here's my thoughts on the Orange:

Guards: Flynn is amazing. If Boeheim can keep him fresh for the Big East schedule, watch out. Against Richmond, nobody could guard him. His jumpshot looked good and he got to the rim at will. I think he needs to do a better job of getting his teammates involved, though, which is his primary job as a point guard. Onuaku scored on his first five touches inside on Tuesday, but then went about six months before he got the ball in the post again. Flynn has to make sure that doesn't happen.

Devendorf isn't all the way back from his injury yet - it's obvious to anyone who has watched him play in the past that he's still thinking about his moves (hence, the 1,092 traveling calls in the first two games). As always, the problem with Devo is getting him to play with swagger and edge while keeping his head in the game. He did it in the second half Tuesday, but it's a battle with him every night. His jumper finally had some rhythm Tuesday, though, and he looked better in man-to-man sets than I thought he would.

Andy Rautins is passing the ball better than I remember him being able to before he got hurt last year. He whistled a pass through traffic to Onuaku Tuesday that he never would have made before. But, if he's not hitting jumpers, then Rautins isn't a big help to you - and he has really struggled with his jumper thus far. Hopefully, it's a rhythm thing and not a ààhe bulked up too much and lost his touch' thing. If he's not careful, he'll lose minutes to one of the freshmen.

Forwards: Harris just needs to settle down a bit. He's got nice form on his jumper and even hit a 3 on Tuesday. He's an unbelievable rebounder and can be a shut-down defender. He just looks so unnatural playing the game sometimes. I hate seeing the ball in his hands on the fast break, and he tends to kill spacing by being in the wrong places. But, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.

Kristof Ongeneat is solid. He won't score much, and he's a pedestrian rebounder, but the kid just plays hard. You don't have to run plays for him, and he's happy getting four points a game on put-backs and the occasional drive. If the ball doesn't find its way to him, he doesn't sulk, which is refreshing. Plus, he's Belgian - and that's got to count for something. After two games, help defense is the big shortcoming for him. He needs to be more aware of what's happening opposite him, and he has to box out better, because he isn't good enough physically to outjump people. But, my life is a little happier with Ongeneat on the team, and I like that. And, the News Gal likes him, so that counts for something.

Center: Onuaku is better than anyone gives him credit for - even his free throw shooting looks better this year. The only caution I have with Arinze will come later in the season when the Orange play better teams. Arinze tended to disappear against good centers, like Hasheem Thabeet of UConn. If he brings his lunch pail against those guys, I could see AO on the second team All-Big East team. He's a player.

Bench: I really like Kris Joseph and Mookie Jones. Against athletic teams, I can see Joseph starting and holding his own. We haven't seen much from him offensively yet, but he looks really fluid running the break, and at 6-8, he might be able to help on the boards as well. The little that I saw of Jones in the LeMoyne game was encouraging. His jumper looks good, he can jump out of the gym and hopefully can keep his head about him defensively. Rick Jackson is better than he was last year, but he still needs to play like he's got a pair - he needs to borrow some of Devendorf's swagger. But, he's a good backup for Arinze, though I don't' want to think about what happens if he has to play significant minutes.

Defense: Everybody clamors for the Orange to play more man defense, but I think they should play more zone. They don't have a sense yet of how to pressure their man the right way, and help defense is really poor. Sunday, against a Division II opponent, Syracuse guards were repeatedly beaten off the dribble by their man, and the second line of defense is at least a step late stepping up to help. Starting Ongeneat hurts, too, because he's not athletic enough to swoop in from the backside to block shots, a la Hakim Warrick. Jonny Flynn can man up and guard the ball really well, but Devendorf and Rautins just aren't all the way back yet. The 'Cuse is a zone defense team, like it or not, and they should just play it until the wheels fall off.

My Projection: Thus far, I've seen inconsistent shooting, poor man-to-man defense and a lack of focus. What does it tell you about my feelings for this team, then, that I can honestly see them finishing in the top six in the Big East, winning a couple of games in the Big East Tournament, making the NCAA Tournament and maybe even winning a game, if things break the right way. This year smells like a 24-win season.

Otto, you can smile again, my friend.



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I'm really looking forward to seeing Jonny Flynn play this year - I think he's one of the top three point guards in the country and a joy to watch break down a defense.