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Syracuse simply lost on offense

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Syracuse fans, still reeling from Wednesday night’s upset loss to Boston College, are asking the same question today.

What has happened to the Orange offense? And are the last five games, in which SU has averaged just 58 points per game, an aberration or is this the team that’s been there all along, take away the late-game heroics that saved at least seven victories this season?

The answer is at once simple, as coach Jim Boeheim said several times following the BC overtime loss, and complicated.

“If the ball’s not going in the basket, it’s tough to win,” Boeheim explained after watching his team shoot a season-low 32 percent against the Eagles. “You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to see that 32 percent is not going to cut it in this league.”

Yet that is just the bottom line on the stats sheet. SU took 62 shots, 13 more than BC, but made only 20, which included only two 3-pointers in 12 attempts.

The Eagles shot 49 times and made 21 baskets, including 11 3-pointers on 22 tries.

But it’s where the shots are coming from and how they are being set up that makes Orange fans nervous. SU is collectively in an offensive funk, and the explanations are varied as to why, and how to fix it with the toughest stretch of the season beginning Saturday at Duke.

Here’s one man’s opinion on why the offense is flat and unproductive:

n Whereas the SU offense looked fluid early in the year, and even in the big win over Duke, with great ball movement and plenty of touches on each possession, that has not been the case of late. There is way too much dribbling, too much settling for bad shots when an extra pass could produce an even better shot.

n C. J. Fair, the leading scorer and main go-to guy most of the season, has seemed to hit the proverbial wall. Fair’s strength as he put the Orange on his back early was his offensive efficiency. Taking good shots and making them at a high rate helped the Orange be proficient in key situations.

But he has averaged more than 40 minutes per game the last 11, playing every second of eight of those, and has lost his legs on his jumper and his confidence on his drives to the hoop. The last two games he’s just 12-for-39 from the floor, and many of those shots are rushed and not in rhythm. Without him more productive, the Orange will struggle to beat any good team.

n SU can’t get Trevor Cooney enough open looks, and that has severely hampered the team’s ability to score more points.

Outside of a tremendous game against Notre Dame, in which he went 9-for-12 on threes and scored a career-high 33 points, Cooney has been a nonfactor. As the Orange’s only reliable 3-point shooter, he’s managed just 27 attempts from beyond the arc in the last four games, making eight. And as a team, SU is hitting just 25 percent on 3-pointers during that stretch.

Opposing defenses are making sure Cooney doesn’t beat them, putting the onus on others to make shots. And that was, and will continue to be one, of this team’s weaknesses, consistently making jump shots.

n The Orange transition game, a staple of Boeheim’s teams for decades, has been almost nonexistent the past month. SU has recorded just 32 fast-break points over the last four games. And without getting 15 to 20 relatively easy points every game, it puts a premium on half-court execution, which has not been one of SU’s strengths in the past.

Some of that is attributable to the fact that teams are taking a lot of time off the shot clock on each possession, and slowing the pace to a crawl. They are simply not allowing the Orange to get out in transition.

Another factor is that SU’s defense is not producing as many steals as it did early in the year. Prior to the start of the ACC season, the Orange averaged nearly nine steals a game. In ACC play, that has been trimmed to just over five per game. Steals lead to easy run-outs, and that leads to much easier baskets.

n SU is not getting enough production on the offensive glass. With great size and length, this figured to be a very good rebounding club, which could generate lots of put-backs and second-chance opportunities.

Yet, against two of the worst rebounding teams in the ACC (BC and North Carolina State), the Orange was outrebounded each time, and had a combined 14 second-chance points. That against two teams which played four guards most of the game.

Clemson and Pittsburgh also outrebounded Boeheim’s club and negated their inside strength.

n It took awhile, but ACC teams have finally been able to take SU freshman point guard Tyler Ennis out of his comfort zone.

By negating driving lanes, they’ve forced Ennis to make plays on the perimeter more. Teams are almost daring him to take perimeter shots, and forcing him to work side-to-side instead of going North and South straight to the basket.

It was to be expected that Ennis would struggle at some point. It’s not like he has been awful. But he’s been out of double figures three of the last five games, he’s making more careless mistakes than at any point this season. And he, like Fair and others, looks to be a bit fatigued having been forced to play nearly 38 minutes per game in conference.

By themselves, each of those deficiencies are not a big deal. Together, however, they pose a problem.

Whether Boeheim can find the answer over the next three or four weeks will determine whether this was, indeed, a special season, or whether the Orange did it with smoke and mirrors for so long until their luck ran out.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse basketball for the Times. You may reach him at jday@wdt.net

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