College Basketball Handicapping: Experts Talk Syracuse Hoops
by Robert Ferringo - 1/15/2015
Flash back less than one year ago and things were perfect in the world of Syracuse basketball. Literally perfect. The Orange had just beaten Boston College to move to 17-0 on the season and were well on their way to a magical 25-0 start and the No. 1 ranking in the country. The Orange were still riding the momentum of their trip to the Final Four the previous spring and were unbeaten in their maiden voyage through a new league, the ACC.
That win over the Eagles, an old Big East rival, moved Syracuse to a gaudy 71-13 straight up record since the start of 2012 season, and the Orange were a dominating force on the college hoops landscape. They were the halcyon days, to be sure.
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Since then the storms have beset Central New York. The Orange lost six of their final nine games to end last year's campaign, including an unceremonious loss to N.C. State in SU's ACC Tournament debut followed by an ugly second-round exit at the hands of Dayton in the NCAA Tournament. The offseason was no kinder, noteworthy for the crippling defections of starters Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant to the NBA.
This year's campaign began with tough nonconference losses in nearly all of Syracuse's key non-league games, including a gut-wrenching, blown-lead and loss to Villanova. And the latest blow to the program was losing freshman starter Chris McCullough for the season to a knee injury, leaving the team with just eight healthy scholarship players.
To make matter worse, rumors are swirling that Syracuse is on the verge of major sanctions. My sources within the program are telling me that something could be announced within the next week and it could include vacated wins and a postseason ban. But, to this point, that's just rumor.
Syracuse is currently 13-4 record and unbeaten (4-0) to start ACC play. But anyone that follows the Orange closely knows that this team has been doing it with smoke and mirrors. Three of their last four wins - all against ACC bottom-feeders - have come by three points or less. The Orange are just 6-8 against the spread on the season, and their next game will be at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Clemson against the struggling Tigers. My projections have Syracuse opening as a scant two-point favorite.
All of the drama is making Syracuse one of the more interesting programs to watch and handicap this season.
Naturally, I am drawn to the Orange because Syracuse is my alma mater. But lest you think that would color my opinion of SU, I can assure you that I'm an objective observer first and foremost; my money is more important to me than my fandom. And anyone that's enjoyed my college basketball service this season knows I've been betting heavily against this year's group, most recently winning an easy play on Wake Forest (+9.5) on Wednesday in a game Syracuse escaped with an 86-83 victory.
I decided to pick the brain of the guys over at Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, one of the most popular Syracuse blogs on the Interweb, for a little perspective on this squad. Matt McClusky was nice enough to take some time to answer a few questions and give some insight into this year's team. I thought it could help us ascertain what this group's value may be to us moving forward.
Here is the full transcript of our e-mail exchange this week:
1. Obviously it was very disappointing to see Chris McCullough go down. How do you feel that injury changes the tenor and expectations of the rest of the season? Do you think that Syracuse will become a more up-tempo team because we will be playing smaller and with more wings or do you expect Syracuse to slow its tempo down even further to compensate for is woefully short bench? Currently there's an average of 126.2 combined points per game scored in SU games. Do you see that number going higher or lower without our only viable second big?
McClusky: "There is no question Chris McCullough's being lost for the year changes EVERYTHING for Syracuse. While he may not have been a true "lottery pick" in this coming June's NBA Draft, McCullough provided an athletic big inside who defended well and could, occasionally, contribute offensively as well. Losing his production and just simply losing yet another body to throw out there is a major loss that will affect every aspect of Jim Boeheim's team. SU with the frosh was a fringe NCAA team, without him? The NIT becomes a question. And, in terms of offense, does anyone think Tyler Roberson or B.J. Johnson or Chino Obokoh playing more is a good thing, offensively speaking? Two words: no dice. Roberson and Johnson are lengthy and can move quickly. But both have zero range and struggle with bunnies close to the bucket. And Obokoh is as raw a big man as Sean Williams. Losing an NBA talented player, no matter his experience, has never helped a team."
2. One of the things that I was most looking forward to this year was the development of B.J. Johnson and Tyler Roberson. I felt that if we were going to become a Top 5 team again in the next two years we would need one of them to grow to an All-ACC level. What are your impressions of the two sophomores and do you think that either can get to kind of C.J. Fair-Kris Joseph-Wesley Johnson level?
McClusky: "Roberson is intriguing, if only for his size and his knack for rebounding. He can't shoot for anything, but not many inexperienced bigs can. So I am more than willing to give Roberson the benefit of any doubt as he gets more comfortable to the D1 level. As for Johnson? Well, I guess if the jury is still out on Roberson it hasn't even been presented the case for Johnson. Johnson, in limited time, hasn't shown too much of anything. If I had to guess, I'd say Roberson contributes even more in 2015-16 while Johnson sees more and more pine. But don't forget, Jim Boeheim and company are bringing in a top-10 recruiting class that may still add Thomas Bryant. So any worrying about either Roberson or Johnson may all be for naught."
3. I have been anti-Trevor Cooney. You can't be called a "shooter" if you only make 38 percent of your shots from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range for your career. In a way he is very emblematic of this team right now: potential, inconsistency, physical ability, but lack of savvy. What are your feelings about the guy that is really the bellwether player for us? And who are some other players that people should look to raise their level of play in the season's second half?
McClusky: "Trevor Cooney has actually raised his three-point shooting percentage by over 12 points in the last month! And, furthering his defense, shooting nearly 40 percent when defenses know you are the ONLY threat? That's impressive. Honestly, I get why people get on Cooney for his inconsistencies, but he's only a junior and the season is just barely halfway through. If he makes between three and four attempts a game from here on out, SU will be in pretty good shape to make the tourney. Looking throughout the roster for someone that can step up to help: Mike Gbinije is the only real candidate. Which tells you something. What exactly it tells us I don't know, but I would guess it has something to do with recruiting. Sure, Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant and Dion Waiters and Fab Melo all left early, changing the team construct. But none of those guys were pure shooters to begin with. Cooney is improving, but imagine what he could do if there was even one more player opponents had to worry about?"
4. From an objective betting standpoint the Orange have been underrated over the last several weeks. They have won six straight overall heading into the Wake Forest game and are 4-3 against the spread. They covered the spread in three of their four biggest games outside of The Dome this season (Cal, Iowa, Nova and Michigan) and before McCullough's injury the metrics suggested that this team is being underrated. What do you think? Is this team better than people realize? Or do you feel that they have been overachieving and that it is downhill from here?
McClusky: "That number against the spread took a dip after the Wake Forest game, but there is a little bit of an underrated feel to this Syracuse team. It has now won seven-straight games and is 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, yet no one nationally is paying any attention. Of course, barely beating Virginia Tech or the Demon Deacons isn't going to change that but if you put the line of demarcation at nine or ten ACC wins gets a team in the dance, well then, SU is inching closer to that line with every game. On the other hand, from February 14 through the end of the season the Orange will play Duke twice, Louisville, Notre Dame and Virginia. Stockpiling under-the-radar wins now may be the only real option for SU."
5. The back half of the Orange's ACC schedule is just absolutely brutal. Right now I would put the over/under on the number of regular season games this team will win after Feb. 1 at just 3.5. And I would definitely wager on the 'under'. What do you think? Over or Under 3.5 wins after Feb. 1? And what do you think the keys are for this team to hold it together during that stretch?
McClusky: "Ah, yes, the late-season schedule! Calling it "brutal" may actually be an understatement and if I was to bet, I'd also take an under on "3.5 wins." There are winnable games, like home to Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, but there are just so many tough teams in such a condensed amount of time. I mean, February 14 brings Duke to the Dome and the following game, just four days later, Louisville comes to central New York. Yikes! Even with a full roster of experienced players, that last month or so would be just about impossible.
"For Syracuse not to completely implode the Orange will have to do one thing much better: defense. The zone has been way too leaky, like when Wake Forest hit the three to force overtime. Why were the guards, specifically Cooney, playing so far into the paint? And remember when there would be constant double-teams in the corners? Syracuse doesn't have much offensively, but, in all reality, not many teams do, and a good defense is the great equalizer. If Boeheim can tighten up the zone, SU could certainly beat the Pitts and Virginia Techs on the schedule down the stretch. Hell, if the lines against Duke and Louisville are too high, there is no reason why the Orange can't cover the spread - a staple of other slightly-below-par Boeheim teams of the past."
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has earned six straight winning college basketball years. He has averaged $7,500 in college basketball profit for his clients over the last four years - an unparalleled mark in the industry - and he is on pace to top that again this year. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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