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Fixing Syracuse’s hole at the three

Jim Boeheim gazes at his team after calling a timeout against Boston College.
Jim Boeheim gazes at his team after calling a timeout against Boston College.

Syracuse basketball is a storied program with storied players to go along with its legacy. Guys like Elijah Hughes, Wesley Johnson, and Carmelo Anthony have manned the small forward position for SU, electrifying crowds and leading SU to wins all while preparing to play at the next level. However, the three spot has been lacking in production this season. Chris Bell, Justin Taylor, and even Quadir Copeland have all seen time at the position with varying degrees of success.

“The biggest disappointment is we block a shot, we make ‘em miss, and then the forward’s standing there and we don’t get the rebound, we’re not getting those loose balls,” head coach Jim Boeheim said, “You know we’re just not playing at the level we have to play at… What I’m worried about is we just aren’t that positioned for getting loose balls or rebounds. Somebody’s got to get the ball.”

Boeheim hasn’t been able to get consistent production from anyone at small forward, which has led to inconsistent lineups, as host of the Locked on Syracuse podcast Matt Bonaparte explains.

“You’d think they’ve got it all figured out. Rotations, who’s playing what, but no, we’re still sitting here looking at this like ‘well Chris will start, and then once he screws up I’ll take him out’. This won’t work. That’s what I’ll tell you all season. They have to figure it out at some point.”

One potential solution could be sticking with Chris Bell and letting the freshman work through any natural growing pains. But Bonaparte says Bell “doesn’t fit the mold of what Syracuse needs him to be” and doesn’t have a ton of faith in that option. To be fair to Bell though, the mold is ever-evolving along with the game itself. And the 'Cuse has made some changes to adapt to the faster, more shooter-dominant product we see today, but it’s possible it hasn't leaned far enough in that direction.

“Last year there was kind of a shift in what Syracuse basketball’s identity was, because for the last 40 years it was being a team that scored enough points to beat you, but only because they didn’t let you score more than 60 points. It was all defense,” Bonaparte said, “But last year, when you had probably the least athletic team that Jim Boeheim has ever seen on a basketball court, that wasn’t an option so they had to result to just shooting the lights out every single game and beating you to 90 points. So now they’re in this weird middle ground where they recruited kind of both, but more to the three-point thing, so they have guys like Bell and Taylor, but they still aren’t as athletic as they need to be to play really great defense, and they still let teams like Pitt score 80-plus points.”

But what if Syracuse has a more typical, athletic three on the squad already? Maybe he hasn’t been playing the position for right now, but Benny Williams has the profile to fit right into that role.

“Benny at the three would be cool because like you say, if he weren’t playing for Syracuse there’s a good chance he’d be a three,” Bonaparte said, “Him at the three could work if they had another--I mean if Malik Brown, I’ve been saying this since before the preseason, arguably, he’s one of the highest floor guys. He’s really good. And when he plays you see that, he just doesn't play enough. I’d love to see that guy get more minutes. See that’s something I wish they tried.”

Williams averages more points, rebounds, and assists than both Chris Bell and Justin Taylor, so why not shake things up? But when it comes to fixing the small forward problem long-term, Bonaparte says SU should go back to its old ways of recruiting.

“The only thing I wish that they would do, and that Syracuse should do, is recruit to what made them successful. Why not recruit to what you were good at, which was stopping other teams from scoring.”