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John Day column: This year’s version of SU lacks mental toughness

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SYRACUSE — Former Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine was hanging around the locker room following Saturday’s 58-53 loss to Louisville, consoling the Orange players after another frustrating game.

Asked his impressions of what he had just witnessed, Jardine shook his head and pointed to his head and his heart. “You’ve got to want it up here (head) and down here (heart) more than the other team,’’ he said. “I’m not sure if this team has that capacity and mentality right now.”

As the Orange has sunk from first place to currently a tie for fourth following a third straight loss, it’s become evident what this club lacks from last year’s team that coasted to the Big East regular-season title with only one loss and came within a few minutes of another trip to the Final Four.

That team, with Jardine, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph leading the way, was so mentally tough it knew how to fight through bad stretches and find a way to win no matter what the circumstances.

The current club, led by seniors Brandon Triche and James Southerland but otherwise young of age and experience, has not learned that unique ability.

“Can you imagine Dion letting us lose those games down the stretch?’’ a friend asked. “He would have kept taking the ball to the hoop. I don’t care if he turned the ball over every time. Dion and Scoop wanted the ball, and then knew what to do with it with the game on the line.”

That’s been one of the strengths of Jim Boeheim’s teams over the years. He’s always had go-to guys who were not afraid to make mistakes and take the big shot or make the big pass when needed.

The litany of players who did that regularly includes Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas, Billy Owens, Gerry McNamara, Carmelo Anthony, Andy Rautins, Johnny Flynn and more.

The one key ingredient this team lacks is a player who can put the Orange on his back during crunch time and lift them up.

Sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams appeared to be that man early in the season. After barely playing a year ago, he burst onto the scene with his passing prowess and willingness to run the team.

But as the Big East season has progressed, Carter-Williams has become more tentative, he’s shied away from the physical play and simply has not been able to finish anything near the hoop.

For a guy who has started 135 straight games, Triche would appear to be a logical choice as the man with the ball in his hands in key situations.

But he, too, has faltered. His shot has deserted him and now he’s turning the ball over with regularity.

Junior C.J. Fair has turned into a nice player, with expanded offensive skills. But he is not a guy you can simply throw the ball to and ask him to get a bucket.

Senior James Southerland has given SU a lift since his return from an eligibility problem. But he is more of a complementary player who needs others to create for him.

That leaves the Orange as a ship without a rudder at times. Boeheim has insisted Carter-Williams is still his leader. But it’s become apparent he is perhaps in over his head.

And with no inside game to speak of, the Orange are at the mercy of how they shoot. Not a great shooting team to start with, they take too many bad 3-pointers and don’t work hard enough for a better shot.

The Orange are generating very little in transition, get almost nothing off the offensive boards, and often go for long stretches when they simply cannot score.

It’s too bad because the 2-3 zone has been very effective, keeping SU in games even though it struggles offensively almost every night.

Boeheim insists things can still turn around, and that SU “can be a force in the (Big East and NCAA) tournaments.’’

Jardine isn’t so sure. “If you aren’t seeing mental toughness at this point of the season, when so much is on the line, it’s hard to believe you’re suddenly going to find it,’’ he said. “You have to believe in what you’re doing at all times. And if you don’t, you’re in trouble.’’

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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