Syracuse All Set With Southerland Back

In the case of Syracuse sharpshooter James Southerland, the Orange didn’t quite know what they had until it was gone. After being a role player for the last three years, few realized how integral the senior was to the team’s success this year until a mysterious academic issue kept him off the court for six consecutive games, a streak that came to an end Sunday in Syracuse’s 77-58 over St. John’s.

Despite a 4-2 record in the six games played without Southerland, including a road win over then number-one ranked Louisville, the Orange were not the same team without him. For a team that already struggled to make perimeter shots, Syracuse lacked offensive firepower even more without Southerland. The Orange did not have enough capable scorers, nor did they have the outside threat necessary to stretch the defense while Southerland was out. This forced Syracuse to put too much scoring responsibility on the shoulders of guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, which got Carter-Williams out of his comfort zone as a playmaker and a distributor and made Triche the team’s primary outside shooter, taking him away from his strength, which is driving aggressively to the basket. Without Southerland’s production and presence on the floor, Syracuse was forced to win more on the merits of its defense than its offense.

Without Southerland, Syracuse was also lacking in experience and depth. Forwards C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant were forced to log heavy minutes in Southerland’s absence, and were not able to leave the floor at all once starting center DaJuan Coleman went down with an injury. It was the freshman Grant that saw the biggest role change in the wake of Southerland’s absence, and while he exceeded expectations and gave the Orange the lift they needed, his lack of physical strength has been exposed at times, due to the number of minutes he’s been forced to play. Syracuse has also missed the experience Southerland brings to the table, as opposed to the inexperience of the freshman Grant, who has made some mistakes along the way that can be attributed to youth and would be less likely to occur with Southerland in the game or Grant playing fewer minutes.

After holding its collective breath during Southerland’s six-game absence, Orange Nation can breathe easy again, now that Southerland is back on the floor, and now that they can see what a difference maker he is and will be on a potential run to the final four. He may not be the kind of dynamic playmaker that can take a team on his back and carry them throughout the entire month of March, but Southerland gives the Orange the kind of experience, depth, and scoring ability that can make a difference late in the season.

With the strides that Grant made, Syracuse has actually benefited by having to play without Southerland, but in the long run he is an essential piece of the puzzle. After playing six games without him, the Orange now know that his presence on the floor brings experience and shooting range that can’t be replaced. Now that he’s back from his mysterious absence, Syracuse has received both a physical and psychological boost that could help propel them a long way into March.

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