Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tuesday Night Basketball: Syracuse, UNC and the Knicks

With all three of my favorite teams (NBA and college) in action last night, it's time for a triple post.

Syracuse v. Cornell

This game was a mismatch from the start, as evidenced by the 38-17 halftime score. Cornell struggled against Syracuse's zone and could only find open shots beyond the three-point line, where they shot just 7-for-29 on the day.

The Big Red put up a fight in the second half, actually outscoring the Orange 41-40 and cutting the lead to 11 at one point (49-38). But Syracuse was too athletic for the Big Red and followed the lead of their MVP so far this season, senior big man Rick Jackson, who had 17 points and 13 rebounds for his sixth double-double in seven games this season.

Jackson, down 25 pounds from a season ago, looks much quicker and much more explosive and has almost doubled his rebounding average, from 7.0 in 2009-10 to 13.0 this year. With the rest of the team struggling to find consistency in its play, Syracuse's only senior has taken the leadership role in his own hands.

Jim Boeheim still feels him team is overrated, and I agree. The Orange have the potential to be an Elite 8 team this season if they continue to improve as the season wears on but if they don't step up their game when Big East play begins, this team won't be in the top 10 for much longer.

North Carolina v. Illinois

Speaking of overrated, is there a team in the past two years who has been more overseeded to start the year than the Tar Heels? A preseason top-10 team last year, they struggled and missed the NCAA tournament. Starting at #8 in the polls this year, UNC is already out of the top 25 thanks to two early-season losses.

The score of last night's 79-67 loss to #21 Illinois was not indicative of how the game was played. The Illini dominated Roy Williams' young Carolina squad behind 17 points and 8 assists from All-American hopeful Demetri McCamey, one of the NCAA's better point guards. John Henson and Tyler Zeller were the only Tar Heels in double figures, as top recruit Harrison Barnes continued to struggle.

Barnes had just 8 points on 2-for-9 shooting, his third single-digit scoring game in seven games this season. For the year, he's shooting just 33.8 percent from the field and hasn't had a 20-point game yet. Barnes is a scorer who hasn't been able to find his identity (shooter? slasher?) early in his college career and while I don't expect him to struggle all season, it's obvious the Heels aren't a top-25 team even if Barnes was scoring like he could.

After losing Ed Davis, Deon Thompson, Marcus Ginyard and Will Graves from a team that was just 20-17 last season, I don't know how people expected this squad to be one of the ten best in the nation, especially from the get-go. It could be another long season along Tobacco Road and I'm not sure this team is even good enough to make the tournament this season.

Knicks v. Nets

Break up the Knicks! A 10-9 record places them seventh in the East through almost a quarter of a season, behind the five teams everyone expected to contend in the east (Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago) and a surprise Pacers team, who have recent quality wins at the Heat and the Lakers. And considering Cleveland is currently eighth at 7-10, it's not blasphemous to say the Knicks are a playoff contender.

I said the same thing a few weeks ago, right before the Knicks managed to lose six in a row. They've won seven of eight since, losing to the only team they faced who was over .500 (Atlanta) and losing convincingly at home. New York might be a playoff contender, but they are far from a title contender.

Title contenders don't allow 58 first-half points to a 6-12 team. I know the Knicks clamped down defensively in the third quarter, holding New Jersey to just 15 points to take a 15-point lead into the fourth, but I've yet to see the consistency on defense for a full four quarters. I see only flashes of defensive brilliance from this team and that won't be enough to get out of the first round of the playoffs, even in the East.

But it's a definite improvement over last season. Toney Douglas is seeing more time and is probably the Knicks best two-way player, while Ronny Turiaf has been an excellent addition for his defense, rebounding and hustle. I would be remiss to mention rebounding and hustle and leave out rookie Landry Fields, who might be the steal of the draft to this point in the season.

Add in surprising defensive intensity from Amar'e Stoudemire and Wilson Chandler protecting the hoop along with Raymond Felton pressuring the ball up top and this team is actually fun to watch play defense at times. They need to keep the intensity up for a full four quarters every night to legitimately contend though. Unless, of course, they find a way to add Carmelo Anthony. That move is the only one that could make the Knicks a legitimate contender beyond round one.

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