Sunday, March 23, 2014

Requiem for the Orange

I'm too sad to compose any flow into this post, with complete paragraphs and transitions, so let's just go with bullet-points.
  • (Apols. to Garrison Keillor...) It's going to be cold to start this week, with a flurry or two in the air - exactly the sort of weather the city would have shrugged off with the distraction of SU still playing basketball. In retrospect, maybe SU's play over the last month is to blame for everyone complaining so much about this winter that doesn't seem to end.
  • Remember when CJ Fair was your favorite player. (That's a statement, not a question.) He's a phenomenal complementary player, not a star. Let's remember him at his best.
  • At some point, doesn't Ennis deserve some of the blame for SU's offensive woes? He gets so much credit for being relaxed, cool-headed, and under-control but in the same breath we're criticizing the team for looking lackadaisical and seeming at times to play without passion. Doesn't the demeanor of the leader on the floor tend to spread to the rest of the team? The worst part of this final stretch of the season has been how un-fun SU has been to watch as they lose. Meanwhile, I'm writing this during the Wichita St.-Kentucky game. These Shockers run and gun and attack from all over the floor. They might not hold off Kentucky's talent, but they are a joy to watch play basketball.
  • My biggest question about Ennis is whether he can play at a high tempo. We know he makes great decisions playing at a steady pace, but given a team with more weapons, can he raise the tempo and really get an offense to hum? My one memory of Ennis really pushing the pace is from early in the second half of the Georgia Tech loss. It seemed like he sensed SU needed a spark in that moment. The Orange looked good, but the game was too choppy for the Orange to sustain that style. I doubt Ennis will be back next year, so this is mainly speculation about what kind of NBA point guard he will be.
  • Final Ennis thought...Ennis is a better pure point guard, but Michael Carter-Williams was a better college player than Ennis. (Better defender, better all-around scorer.) I think the same will be true in the NBA.
  • Cooney and Ennis are very good but not great defenders at the perimeter of the zone. The 2-3 was still excellent this year, but it never churned out turnovers (and, thus, offense) with the same effectiveness as it did in the Triche et al era.
  • SU played great pressure defense in the final minute to scrape back into the game. The flagrant foul (tough call, but correct based on the strict elbow rules) and the timeout granted to Dayton that should have been a travel or an out-of-bounds both sting in my memory.
  • My brother asked me to rank the worst SU losses of the last ten years, so here goes...
 5. March 16, 2006 - Texas A&M in the NCAAs. With Gerry McNamara exhausted and injured after his "overrated" run to the Big East Championship, the five-seed Orange fall in the first round to the 12-seed Aggies. This was one of the least tournament surprising upsets ever, as Texas A&M was one of the best defenses in the country that year and everyone knew Gerry was spent. The Big East tournament run was SO worth this loss.

4. November 4, 2009 - LeMoyne in the dome. Hugely embarrassing in the moment to lose to the tiny school down the road. In retrospect, this might have been a useful jumpstart as SU went 30-5, reach number one in the polls, and earned a one-seed in the NCAAs.

3. Last night - Dayton in the NCAAs. SU was who we feared they were, and Dayton took advantage. The ceiling for the Orange this year was never as high as we hopped it might be. We'll always have 25-0 and the Pitt game... (But oh, if that last shot had gone in!)

2. March 25, 2010 - Butler in the NCAAs. SU loses as a one-seed in the regional semifinals to five-seed, eventual national runner-up, and general team of destiny Butler. This is the year (same season as the LeMoyne loss) everyone looks back on and wonders what might have been had Arinze Onuaku been healthy. A-O was probably my favorite center of recent SU teams. Hard to believe he wouldn't have made a difference in this agonizingly close loss to the Bulldogs. The champion that season, Duke, was beatable.

1. March 18, 2005 - Vermont in the NCAAs. For me, his one hurts the most. Hakim Warrick is my all-time favorite Orange. SU was coming off a Big East Conference Championship that had earned them a four-seed. I think the Orange had a chance to make a really deep run but they ran into a Vermont team that played the game of their lives, hitting crazy threes late. When the game went into overtime it seemed certain that the Orange would come out on top, but it didn't happen.

(Interesting note: I was watching the regionals in the Carrier Dome during the Butler loss and producing a webcast of the ECAC Hockey tournament during the Vermont loss, so I wasn't glued to a TV for either. Some higher power protected me from both of those painful memories...)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

2014 NCAA First Round: Walking Commentary

It's not a running commentary. It's not even a jogging commentary. I'll scatter my updates throughout the day, listed from newest at the top to oldest at the bottom. As games finish, look for more posts. If the games are duds, my posts will be slim to UConn (that is, nil). The only way to tell if I've posted again - refresh your browser!

Off we go with the greatest weekend in sports!



Relive last year's First Round:
Day 1

And the 2012 First Round:
Day 1
Day 2 

And the 2011 First and Second Rounds:
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

--------------------------------------------------------------

2:08 - We begin with an Aaron Craft intentional foul! Good call, especially since I don't want to see him against the Orange ever again. Come on Dayton!

2:21 - One game, one great finish, one upset. I love this tournament! I think SU's zone can clamp down on these slashy Flyers and get the Orange to the 2nd weekend. 

2:31 - Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is LITERALLY wiping the floor with Colorado. I was shocked the Panthers were on the bubble heading into the ACC tournament. I know Jamie Dixon has put up some bad results in the NCAAs, and this isn't his strongest team in recent years, but they can still defend. Says here Pittsburgh could cause Florida a lot of trouble in the next round. I agree.

2:50 - Does rooting for a Harvard upset make you more or less of an elitist? If it was Yale...it'd be different obviously. But Harvard is right on the edge.

2:53 - A shot of the Western Michigan lockeroom as head coach Steve Hawkins gives what is apparently supposed to be a motivational speech. The most alarming thing about that shot...Steve Hawkins sounds a lot like Steven Hawkings! 

2:54 - Slight delay as I pause the game. Normally, no pausing during March Madness but this is my first married March and I'm waiting for my wife to get home to watch.

In the meantime, let's take note of the stakes for this game for the Orange. First and foremost, if SU survives the opening weekend, that means everyone in town is in a good mood all week long, regardless of the weather. A nice March run through the tourney is always good for morale as Central New York deals with the last few gasps of winter. (Yes, it snowed a bit today.)

A win today avoid embarrassment, pure and simple. A first round exit would sure leave a bad taste in the mouth from the CJ Fair era, wouldn't it? That would be a shame, since the guy was never meant to be the best player on a team. He's a wonderful 2nd or third option. Not a superstar. Incidentally, that's ultimately what is going to stop the Orange in this tournament.

Finally, Jerami Grant is gone. The rumblings around SU are that he refused acupuncture treatment for his sore back because he didn't want to mess around with anything heading into the NBA draft. Tyler Ennis, despite being a higher projected pick, is still slightly less of a lock to leave. I think he's gone too, but an early exit could prompt him to take one more go around. So there's the silver lining if things go awry here. 

3:12 - We're underway in the Arras Apartment. My brother-in-law's (AKA Pookie) bracket pool is called "Cooneypleasehita3." And Cooney does, after Boeheim yells at him to, "just shoot the ball!" Good sign. 

3:17 - Don't waste those threes, Cooney! They come in limited quantities. 

3:22 - Conversation after Rak got called for goaltending:
Taylor-When did the goaltending rule first start?
Me-I dunno, a long time ago...when black guys started playing.

3:25 - The tourney is one time when I have no mercy on an opponent. (UConn games used to be the other...) I'm already muttering, "Bury these guys!" under my breath. Not until we're up by 50 will I be comfortable. 

3:38 - SU's killing these guys...but CJ's shooting touch is still not there. It should come back, but we'll see if the Orange can survive until that happens. 

3:46 - Switched over to the Haaahvahd-Cincy game during SU's halftime. Listening to Doug Gottlieb commentate is the exact opposite of listening to Bill Raferty, in every single way. 

5:00 - Good work by SU. Survive and advance. Play like that against Dayton, and they'll win again. Still, doesn't yet feel like they can beat a top seed.

5:35 - Love it when a 16-seed hangs around. And, as I have said in the past, I think the first 16-seed is going to win by coming out of the play-in game. Helps them build some momentum, get right into the flow of the tourney. Come on Albany! Nuke the brackets! 

5:55 - And right on cue, Albany starts to crumble...

11:54 - What? You're still here? As well you should be! What an opening day! Do not take today for granted; this has been above average. Multiple overtimes. Multiple games coming down to the wire. Multiple upsets. Great stuff.The beauty of March is that it feels like days like this happen every year. They do happen a lot, but it is not this good every year. Fun times!

12:00 - And at the stroke of midnight, a buzzer-beater! Fantastic! What a phenomenal job by the Longhorn big fella to scoop up that ball from the ground and pop it in the hoop. Brutal break for Arizona State. The commentators nailed it- that three-point shot was so bad it turned into an easier rebound for Texas. 

12:03 - Meanwhile, Manhattan takes their first lead of the night a few minutes into the second half against Louisville. I would love to see the Cardinals go down. How annoying is Rick Pitino griping about his match-up with Manhattan? And the general outrage over Louisville's seed went a little too far. They played a fairly weak slate this year, compared to days of Big East yore. They're always dangerous, but I think they're Sweet 16 and out.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

March Memories: Harvard-Princeton

True college basketball fans know March Madness is already well underway. And, as someone who loves the beauty of the bracket, I like to imagine the conference tournaments as dozens of little brackets funneling into the big bracket.

Right now, the America East Conference Finals are on my TV. Stony Brook is looking for their first ever NCAA tournament bid. They've won the regular season title three times but never the conference tournament for the autobid. That led me to hunt for a great America East appearance in the NCAA tournament...which led me to Vermont-SU 2005...which I am not going to submit SU fans to, despite how awesome that win was for the Catamounts, objectively speaking.

Instead, let's go to the one of the greatest non-tournament win-or-go-home games from recent years, the Harvard-Princeton one game playoff in the Ivy League, the only remaining conference that doesn't hold a conference tournament. In 2012, Harvard and Princeton were tied at the end of the regular season so they had to play one more game. Harvard was the favorite. And watching at the time, we thought they probably needed to win to get into the bracket. This is how the game ended:


Poor Harvard! As it turned out, they did get an automatic bid to the tournament. They lost in the first round, but pulled off an upset last year in the tournament. Harvard is back in the bracket again, and will be a tough first round opponent.

Love that game. And I love the little conference tournaments. Happy March!

Friday, March 14, 2014

SU-NC State Reaction

I don't think I have any surprising thoughts on tonight's disappointing exit from the ACC Tournament. The Orange still look pretty bad these days. They're not much fun to watch when they're playing like this. Each offensive possession is agonizing. The defense is solid, but not really clicking like you'd hope.

A couple things stand out to me from that final futile barrage.
1. Cooney passing up the open three off Grant's missed dunk. I'm afraid that is Trevor Cooney in a nutshell. Ultimately, his confidence is not quite what you'd want from your shooter. He's streaky and he'll always be streaky.
2. CJ Fair missing the open three from the corner. Last year and even as recently as the beginning of this season a CJ Fair corner three felt like a layup. That's no longer true. As amazing as his midrange game has become (this game being an exception), his huge drop in three point shooting percentage really hurts the Syracuse offense. He's down to .286 from .469 from long range last year.

Speaking of CJ's weaknesses, he went 1 for 2 from the free throw line with 3:41 left. Late in games his free throw shooting has been extremely shaky all season.

I still believe that if the Orange get hot, they will make a deep run in the tournament. Right now though, they feel like a Sweet 16 and out team. As for seed, they might get a 4 but that would be unjust. Five losses in the ACC is nothing to be ashamed of. A 3-seed is deserved, and that's what I think they will get on Sunday.

Happy March Memories!

It's March! The season of perpetual hope! The one time of year when the Sports Sauna really kicks into gear to celebrate my favorite sports tournament, the NCAA basketball championship. And honestly, the only reason why I shouldn't write so much this year is my new wife my dissertation my new house that needs to be fully painted among other things before we move in ...nothing! We're a full 24 hours before SU plays its first ACC Tournament game, a few days away from BRACKETS, and exactly a week before the tournament tips off. (Opening round? Never heard of it.) But because I just can't wait, and because old sports clips on YouTube is reason # 783 why the 21st century is going to be the most delightful century yet, I thought I'd post a random March (first week of April counts) Memory regularly (or not...we'll see) from now until...whenever.

Today's clip is the best near-miss in the history of the tournament. Butler. Duke. The great Gordon Hayward. Watch the whole finish of the game, or just start at 5:40 for the shot.



Oh, it almost went in! Remember, this game was in Indianapolis, and had Butler pulled off the greatest upset ever in NCAA Finals, I do believe the Butler students would have paraded all the way back to their campus, six miles away.

I was watching the game with my favorite Duke fans, Dr. Paul and his dad, a Duke graduate. By the end of the game, Doc and I, despite our own affinity for the Blue Devils, and despite the fact that Butler knocked the Orange out of the tournament that year, were secretly hoping Butler would win. Even Paul's dad had to admit that part of him - a very small part - would have enjoyed seeing the impossible happen.

It didn't go in. But it almost did. Almost...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

You are Jim Boeheim! Choose Your Own Adventure!

You are head coach Jim Boeheim. Duke-Syracuse II is coming down the wire. The Orange are down by two. You call a play that gets the ball in the hands of your best scorer, C.J. Fair, a guy who can score from anywhere on the court. Fair attacks the rim along the baseline. Duke's Rodney Hood slides over to get into position. They collide, but Fair smoothly banks the shot in for the tie, except official Tony Greene blows his whistle, calling a charge on Fair. No basket. Duke ball, up two with ten seconds left. You think it was the wrong call. You have two options:

A.) You curse loudly, but bite your lip when Greene glares at you. You spin around and complain to your bench. Then you turn back to the court and scream for a timeout, calling Greene over for a frank, 30-second conversation about the call, being careful not to antagonize him so much that you draw a technical foul.

OR

B.) You curse loudly. You keep cursing loudly. You try to tear off your coat, thinking briefly about whipping it across the court. It doesn't come right off, and, besides, you realize that tossing your coat at Greene, or perhaps using it as a sort of exclamatory whip...that might be a mistake. Instead, you stride across the court, still cursing, heading for Greene. You continue to curse as you get in Greene's face. Greene finally warns you that he will eject you if you curse at him again. You curse at him again. Greene gives you a double-technical and tosses you out of the game. You hang around long enough to clarify your thoughts a few more times, heavily spiced with more cursing. Then you close your mouth and head through the gauntlet of Cameron Crazies taunting you. You reach the locker room and watch the remaining seconds on TV as your team drops its second straight loss of the season.


OPTION A - You keep control and don't get kicked out.

ESPN's cameras focus on you as the timeout ends. You have a wry smile on your face and you shake your head sadly as Greene walks away. You wave your hand dismissively at him and give your team a few quick instructions. ESPN replays the Fair-Hood play for the sixth time, with Bilas and Vitale alternatively sympathizing with Syracuse, marveling at Fair's sweet finish, and generally hedging their opinions about whether or not it was the right call. Ultimately, Vitale thinks the refs should have just let them play, while Bilas insists, "It was either a block or a charge. There's too much contact to be a no call. Ultimately, it's a judgement call, and the judgement went against Syracuse."

Duke inbounds the ball to Rasheed Sulaimon, an 80% free throw shooter. Tyler Ennis immediately fouls him. With 8.5 seconds on the clock, Sulaimon hits the first but misses the second. Down by three, you take a timeout. You set up a play that gives Ennis the ball, with multiple options on the perimeter depending on the defense. Dan Shulman alludes to the Pittsburgh buzzer-beater, but Duke, as they have all game, plays Ennis tightly and forces him to give up the ball. He finds Cooney who comes off a high screen for a decent but off-balanced three. It misses. Jabari Parker rebounds and is quickly fouled with just under 2 seconds to play. He hits both free throws and the game is effectively over. Duke wins, 63-58.

After the game, there is some second-guessing about the late charge call. ESPN breaks it down at length during the post-game show. Most recaps, however, focus on Duke winning round two and Parker's double-double. They also highlight the poor shooting of Ennis and Cooney. In Syracuse, fans bemoan the refereeing, but also start to vocalize creeping doubts about the team's ceiling. Among the Syracuse players, there is much frustration over how they are playing. They are motivated in practice, but a certain naive confidence they had carried before the two defeats has evaporated. You hope to use this as a teaching moment and a chance for them to get better, but of course, you know they'll either take the next step forward in time for the post-season, or they won't.

Overall, the narrative has shifted. Syracuse is not the uber-elite team people were starting to think they were.


OPTION B - You flip out and get kicked out.

For a few moments, all hell breaks loose in Cameron Indoor. In the locker room, you try to remember the last time you were thrown out of a game. Was it ten years ago? (In fact, the one and only time you have ever been ejected was in an exhibition against St. Rose back in 2005.) On ESPN, Bilas criticizes you heavily, saying, "The game is over...when he gets a technical." Indeed, Duke ends up winning 66-60. After the game, (in one of your greatest press conferences) you call it, "the worst call of the year." All of the post-game coverage focuses on the charge call and your ensuing tantrum. Some people think it was the right call. Some people think it was a terrible call. Some people think it could have gone either way. Some people, Duke fans mainly, point out that this evens things up after the suspect officiating in the first meeting.

In Syracuse, it is unseasonably warm, and its hot inside every SU fan's house. Elderly women curse Greene's name. Children burst into tears, wondering why he would make such an obviously bad call. Almost everyone agrees, though, that your ejection was one of the most incredibly awesome things they have ever seen you do. #FreeBoeheim trends number one on Twitter. Freeze frames of your jacket not quite coming off are used for profile photos, and .gifs of your tantrum appear almost immediately. Your approval rating around town is as high as any moment, other than April 2003. People love you.

As your players file into the locker room. They are somber, eyeing you warily. You can guess their thoughts. They are bitter about the loss. They each think about one or two key plays they could have made that might have changed the result. But they all are certain of one thing; if the correct call had been made, they would have won the game. Fair, especially, is certain that Greene made the wrong call. There isn't a doubt in his mind. He knows he made a great play to tie the game. Ennis has his head up. He shot poorly, and yet Syracuse STILL played Duke to a draw in the most hostile environment in college basketball. Keita, puffed up after collecting 8 offensive rebounds, claps his hands enthusiastically. "That was our game! They took it from us!" he shouts, speaking aloud what everyone believes.

Heading into two tough road games, the Orange are eager to get back onto the court and play better. They want to take one more step, improving so that when the next break doesn't go there way, it won't matter. They'll be winning by too much.

You, Jim Boeheim, are waging a campaign.* Getting tossed out was surrendering an already lost battle with an eye set on the greater war. When your best player, your senior, makes a fantastic play to tie the game, but the officials wipe it out with a tough call, you back your best player up. You back your team up. And, if you re-watch the replay in the locker room and realize the call was a lot closer than you thought, you go out to the press conference and call it, "the worst call of the season." You know your team has a lot of ways they need to improve. You know SU's offense is streaky. Your freshman point guard looked a little - just a little - out of sorts against Duke's frenetic man-to-man defense. Your shooter's confidence is up and down. Little injuries are starting to crop up, though you've dodged the big ones thus far. The post-season is just around the corner. The ACC regular season title is slipping away, but it's all about who gets hot in March. The two game losing streak could either be a warning sign or a turning point. In taking the attention onto yourself and onto the one, pivotal call, you hope you've improved the odds that this loss is the latter.

Overall, the narrative has shifted. People don't think Syracuse is the uber-elite team they looked like a week ago. But the Orange players know differently.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Bilas was correct in saying the technicals, not the charge, ended the game. Syracuse had a tiny chance to pull out a miracle if they were only down two, ten seconds to play, Duke's ball. Syracuse had essentially zero chance to pull out a miracle down five, ten seconds to play, Duke's ball. But that tiny chance was worth throwing away.

I'm not sure if Boeheim fully thought out all the ramifications of getting ejected. But for a coach who has never been ejected from a non-exhibition game, and who has only grown more mellow in the twilight of his career, it's hard to believe he didn't know something about what he was doing. Now we'll see what happens.

I am sure of this: as a fan who gets extremely down after SU loses, I was never more fired up after a defeat than I was after this one. Love you Boeheim. Love you CJ. Love you Orange.


*Totally stealing the "campaign" perspective from Michael Davies, one of the two brilliant Men in Blazers, who cover soccer in my favorite podcast.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What Makes a Champion - Thoughts before SU at Pitt

Syracuse plays in Pittsburgh in a couple hours. The Orange have a miserable recent record against Jamie Dixon, especially when the Panthers are hosting. It's very possible Syracuse will lose its first game of the year tonight, and it would be a respectable loss. However, I'm feeling better about SU's chances in Pittsburgh than I have in a very long time. This Orange team plays is comfortable playing slowly and patiently on offense than any Boeheim team in recent memory. They score efficiently. They score from anywhere on the court. And they are an excellent offensive rebounding team, which cuts into Pitt's defensive rebounding advantage, a hallmark of a Jamie Dixon team. I also think this SU team is a just plain tough matchup for this Pittsburgh team. Pitt doesn't quite have the man to man defenders to matchup well with SU's well-rounded attack. (At least, I didn't think they did after the first meeting this year.) This is probably the toughest non-Duke matchup of SU's regular season, but I am predicting a victory with a similar scoreline to the first meeting. Say...55-51 Syracuse.

The larger question posed in my post before the incredible SU-Duke game was whether Syracuse truly is a title contender. Clearly, the answer is yes. In part, I've been persuaded by SU's consistency and its increasingly vaunted steadiness in crunch time. Plus, this SU team is very good in many different ways, better than anyone in a few ways, and much better than most in a lot of ways. If the Orange stay healthy and out of off-court trouble, anything less than a Final Four appearance will be disappointed.

I'm also realizing that championship basketball teams look differently than they did even a decade ago. I'll always judge Syracuse teams against the 2003 roster, and that team's ceiling is out of reach of this team's. But because the most talented players head to the NBA after one season even more often than they did back in the early 2000s, the most talented teams are also young teams. And young teams are inconsistent. Kansas is the most talented team, but they are far from a lock. Kentucky is incredibly talented too, but their title chances feel remote. If Syracuse wins the title this year, it won't be simply because they have plenty of experience on their roster. It will be in large part because of their game to game consistency and their moment to moment steadiness, both of which are boosted in part by the experience of their players, in part by the personality of their coach, and in part by the style of the collective parts, from Ennis to Fair.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Into the Deep Blue: It's Time to See What the Orange are Made of

This afternoon SU goes for its best start ever, and it hosts the famous Duke Blue Devils for the first time as a conference opponent. And maybe, just maybe, I'll figure out how good the Orange really are.

It's not that we've played a horrible schedule, although this year's ACC is a huge step down from the gauntlet that the Big East was for the last 15 years. SU beat Villanova (#9) fairly easily for its best win of the season. The neutral site victory over Baylor was mildly impressive and it's always good to beat Jamie Dixon's Pitt (#19).

But in terms of talent on the roster, I'm not quite sure how good we are. When I look at the #1 Arizona Wildcats, for example, I see an unmatchable balance of talent, from big Aaron Gordon on out to leading scorer Nick Johnson. Kansas has the exceedingly good Andrew Wiggins and the increasingly frightening Joel Embiid, plus six wins over ranked opponents. Michigan State has been banged up, with only three guys playing in every one of their games this season, but they've still only lost twice. (What would SU's record be if Boeheim had to deal with injuries to anyone besides DaJuan Coleman?)

I think that Arizona, Kansas, and Michigan State are all better than Syracuse. I'm quite certain about that, actually. Not that we can't beat them (that's why they play the game, etc.), but those guys have more talent.

Then there is a pack of teams that may or may not be better than us. Florida, Wichita St., San Diego St., Oklahoma St., Kentucky, and probably a few more. Duke is in that group, too, which brings me to today's opponent. Would Syracuse still be undefeated if we played Duke's schedule? No way. Duke lost to Kansas and Arizona, and then dropped two road games in the ACC. A win today would be a giant step for the Orange to go undefeated at home, but they'll lose on the road eventually, at Pittsburgh and/or at Cameron Indoor and/or at Virginia and/or at somewhere more surprising.

Duke will have the best player on the court in Jabari Parker. I'm rather excited to see him play. Quite excited. Trying-to-quiet-my-latent-inner-Duke-fan excited. The Carmelo Anthony comparisons started early, and I think it's very possible that this Duke team might be the equivalent to the 2003 Syracuse team if Jabari goes nuts in March. Parker's averages - 18.8 PPG and 8.1 RPG - suggest he's at best a poor man's Melo - 22.2 and 10.0.

Duke also has Rodney Hood, a guy who can score from anywhere on the court, and who would definitely crack SU's starting five (bumping Cooney). And Coach K has his usual supporting cast of above-average jump shooters: Dawkins, Sulaimon, and Thornton. Their weakness, especially against the Orange, is their height. In recent years, K has just thrown a Plumlee brother in the middle and called it a night, only his current Plumlee (Marshall) is crap. Look for Christmas to have a decent day on offense, and the rest of the Orange attack should be able to attack the rim if they can beat the pesky Coach K man-to-man defending.

OK, I've gone long enough without saying anything nice about the Orange. I do love this team. Tyler Ennis plays PG like Don Draper drinks whiskey: smooth, elegant, and confident. He's the best pure PG to step on the court for the Orange since Jason Hart. His quiet command of the team reminds me of Billy Edelin during the championship run, and his sense of when it's time for him to get to the hoop reminds me of Allen Griffin, only he's WAY more talented than either of those guys. Also, Louie McCroskey has nothing to do with anything, but I just thought I'd mention his name here, because he once groined Hilton Armstrong in the face.

C.J. Fair's midrange game is awesome, and Jerami Grant's shooting is improving there as well. Fair would be a deserved ACC player of the year. And don't look now, but Chad Ford (ESPN Insiders only) has Grant going ahead of Ennis in the NBA draft.

SU is very, very good. But they don't yet have the feel of a true contender, at least not to me. And they have some flaws, glaring ones that pop out at me every time I click on their ESPN team page. Those four basic per game offensive stats listed in big black numbers are not impressive at all: 188th in PPG, 147th in RPG, 192th in APG, 116th in FG%. I always see those bad rankings when I click on my link. I wish there was some way I could make the default stats be SU's defensive numbers, because when you click on that tab, they pop off the charts: 6th in points allowed, 284th in RPG (oops, not that one), 50th in BPG, and 10th in SPG. It's no secret that's the end of the court where we make our hay.

Our defense will carry us far, but it'll be tough to win the title unless our offense improves. Championship teams tend to rack up blow-out victories over the course of the season. SU has only broken 70 once during ACC play, while Duke has results like 95-60 (NC St) and 78-56 (FSU). I'd like to see a few score lines like that.

So we will learn a lot about the Orange this afternoon. And I do think the Orange will win this game. I think the zone plus the dome will suppress Duke's attack enough for SU to pull things out late, as per the usual. The Orange will need to score better than their 71.4 average to do it, so let's say 73-68 final, SU wins. But Duke snags a 2-seed by the end of the year and makes the Final Four.