— People say journalists have forgotten the needs of our readers. Yet consider what the fine people at syracuse.com did last week. They posted a panic button on their web site. That just proves the producers, the editors, and the reporters there are in touch with the people of Upstate New York.
If they don’t need a panic button, who does?
And this panic button didn't have anything to do with the snow.
We’re talking basketball. Orange basketball. Coach Jim Boeheim’s team has lost four games in a row. That’s the reason for the panic button, located right under the headline, “Is it time to hit the panic button for Syracuse University basketball?”
One more loss and that button will be flashing red with sirens will be sounding. One more loss and history will be made. Five straight losses has never happened at Syracuse under Boeheim — and he has been coaching there since 1976. (Honestly, I have to wonder how many of these panic-stricken Upstaters were even born by 1976.)
This is just the third time in those 35 years that the Orange has lost four straight. So when someone tried to ask about this unusual experience, after Marquette beat Syracuse 76-70 Saturday, Boeheim shut it down midway through the question.
“That’s just something for you to write about and talk about,” Boeheim said. “It gives one-tenth of 100 percent of the population the chance to talk about it on talk radio. The other 99 percent — 900 and 99 (percent) — don’t even know there is talk radio.’’
Boeheim walked away from Syracuse with B.A. and M.S. degrees in Social Science. But I’m not sure what type of math they were teaching back in the '60s, so I cannot clear up those funky percentages Professor Boeheim referred to in his press conference.
But that’s the kind of quote you can expect from a coach during the dog days of the season — especially in a brutal conference such as the Big East.
If you haven’t noticed, there isn’t a whole lot that does make sense in the Big East these days. UConn lost to Louisville Saturday and coach Jim Calhoun responded to one question by saying, “I don’t want to talk about Kemba today.” Guess what? If Kemba Walker hits another game-winning shot against Syracuse Wednesday night, the UConn coach will probably decide to say a thing or two about his national Player of the Year candidate.
Call it a hunch.
On the morning of Jan. 17, the sun came up in Syracuse and the Orange remained one of only four unbeaten teams left in Division I. Syracuse was 18-0 and one win away from matching the best start in school history. By nightfall, the first loss of the season had been absorbed. Syracuse lost 74-66 at Pittsburgh. But most teams lose at Pitt. And Syracuse had been without leading-scorer Kris Joseph, who suffered a concussion in the previous game. It wasn’t the end of the world.
Next up was a home game against Villanova. The Carrier Dome opened its doors and a crowd of 33,736 (second-largest in the building’s history) showed up to see the Wildcats hit 11 three-pointers and shoot 45.8 percent from three-point range. Just an off day for Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense, right? The Orange lost back-to-back games once last season. That would be the end of it, right?
Well, not exactly.
Seton Hall followed Villanova into the Dome. This time, Jeremy Hazell and the Pirates shot 58.8 percent (10 of 17) on threes and the third straight loss came in shocking fashion. Final score: Seton Hall 90, Syracuse 68. It was the worst home loss for SU since Feb. 7, 1998.
“Our defense is bad,” guard Brandon Triche said.
Yep, Triche was right. Pitt, Villanova and Seton Hall had exploited the vaunted 2-3 zone. Those three Big East opponents combined to shoot 48.2 percent on threes. Hazell took the opening tip that night, launched a three from somewhere near Varsity Pizza and still had time to order a pizza and some wings before Syracuse even thought about setting up its defense.
“I’m a little disappointed in some of the effort tonight,” Boeheim said. So were some Syracuse fans and a few accused the Orange of quitting that night. That’s a tough word. Only the players know for sure. But sometimes we forget these are kids playing the college game and when things start going wrong, it’s hard to keep everything together.
Hazell hits a shot like that one off the opening tip and suddenly young players don’t have much confidence. And this is a young team. Boeheim started over this year without Wes Johnson, Arinze Onuaku and Andy Rautins. Freshmen Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair, Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita are averaging between 10 and 16 minutes per game.
Kris Joseph is a junior and Scoop Jardine and Triche are still sophomores. Senior Rick Jackson got off to a great start but his role (and his 34.7 minutes per game) is more than he’s ever had to handle.
Perhaps the freshmen never played zone defense in high school. They need time to learn it and perfect it. It was extremely effective last season because Onuaku, Rautins and Johnson were seasoned and experienced. They made it tough for opponents to get the ball into the middle of the zone. It takes teamwork and time.
Do the critics want Boeheim to dump the 2-3 zone? Calhoun laughed at that thought Tuesday during a conference call with reporters.
“We all can call Jim right now and ask him what he’s going to play against us, but we know it’s going to be a 2-3 zone,” Calhoun said.
Before the Marquette game, Boeheim said, “We cannot play man-to-man. We have to play zone. We have to work on our defense. It is our defense. Most teams have a dominant defense, and that’s the one they use. That’s our defense. We’ve got to do a better job with it.”
Several years ago, I made the foolish suggestion in print that Boeheim should cease and desist — tear the zone out of his playbook. He marched his team into Hartford and crushed UConn. I don’t remember the exact words Boeheim used to open his press conference, but it was something like this: “I read somewhere that I’m stupid to continue using the 2-3 zone.”
He had fun at my expense. He had every right. Boeheim has gone on to win a national championship and he has been enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s way past 800 career wins, and may end on the other side of 1,000 victories.
Boeheim will figure this out. Whether the losing streak ends at four games, five games or six games, the Orange will be ready for the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament.
The critics need to take a look at the Big East as a whole. Why does a 2-3 zone work so well against non-conference teams and then appear to be dysfunctional in the Big East?
“Familiarity [in the league],” Calhoun said. “Lack of fear. People get stuck against it. Even people in our league get stuck. That’s why [Syracuse] had such great success early. Then what happens is people start scoring on you. After that first shot of the Seton Hall game … it seemed like it all went downhill from there. And when you don’t believe in something you do well, your offense does suffer.”
That’s exactly the symptoms Syracuse has experience. But a few weeks ago, a reader wrote in to our NBCSports.com mailbag and asked why John Thompson III couldn’t teach defense. That was during Georgetown’s three-game losing streak. Now that Georgetown has turned it around and won five in a row, no one would ask that question.
Welcome to the Big East, version 2011.
“It’s just how volatile the league is. How volatile life is,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “You compete against the best, and that’s a really hard thing to do. You get beat and you’re like, ‘Man, we’re so close.’
“But you’ve got to get to the next play. Because if you don’t get to the next play, you’re going to get beat again. And this league gives you opportunity after opportunity to prove yourself.”
When you think of it that way, it feels better. And maybe, just maybe, you can hold off pushing that panic button.