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Time For A Real Syracuse Basketball Preview

October 22, 2011 - John Whittaker
There was no love for the Syracuse Orangemen in October 2002.

There was no top five ranking in the AP or ESPN polls. The Orange were coming off a disappointing season in 2001-02, failing to make the NCAA Tournament. The appearance of freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara was nice, but nobody thought the Orange were particularly capable of anything magical. The only senior, Kueth Duany, wasn't even the most famous Duany — that honor went to Duany Duany, his brother and a member of Wisconsin's 2000 Final Four team. It wasn't until a 92-65 win over a ranked Georgia Tech team behind 25 points from McNamara and a strong game from Anthony that anyone thought Syracuse was anything more than a middle of the pack team. Suddenly, the team gained steam, eventually winning the Big East regular season championship on the way to Jim Boeheim's first and only NCAA championship. There were unexpected comebacks, strong performances against good teams and a run through the top Big 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament that no one would have seen coming a few months earlier.

I tell this story for two reasons. A lot of things have to go well to win a championship. Syracuse lost two potential starters before that championship season — and there is a distinct possibility that DeShaun Williams or James Thues would have prevented Billy Edelin, Josh Pace and McNamara from blossoming. While that Syracuse team had two future NBA players, nobody at the time thought of Hakim Warrick as a future pro. It had shooting, just enough defense and just enough rebounding from center combination Craig Forth and Jeremy McNeil to make it work. That team was perfectly balanced. It took time, but over the course of the season everybody found and performed their role. That's harder than you would have thought (and more applicable to last year's Syracuse team than you could imagine).

Secondly, there are times when lofty expectations can be a bad thing. Remember the year after the national champonship? The only losses were Anthony and Duany and Boeheim had a stud freshman class that included Louie McCroskey, Terrance Roberts and Daryl Watkins. Roberts was supposed to be a burly power foward capable of helping Anthony's void while McCroskey was supposed to be able to provide some punch off the bench as a wing scorer. Expectations were high, with the Orange ranked seventh in both the AP and ESPN polls. Despite the best efforts of Warrick and McNamara (who scored 43 points against BYU in the NCAA Tournament and continually hit big shots all season) the season ends up being remembered as a disappointment despite an appearance in the Sweet 16. The freshmen weren't quite as good as advertised, and no one filled Anthony or Duany's void adequately.

With the Orange's appearance in the top 5 of the Associated Press' starting poll this season, there are only two ways this season can go from here.

Jim Boeheim's boys can make a run into at least the Elite Eight of this year's NCAA Tournament, at which point they are simply fulfilling the team's lofty expectations. Or, the Orange lose a couple of games in the regular season, lose in the Sweet 16 or before of this year's NCAA Tournament and see the season go down as promise unfulfilled.

That's it. There can't be a repeat of 2002-03. Unfortunately, the 2003-04 story could happen again.

I hope Syracuse fans are ready for the attention that will be heaped on the Orange this season. For as much talent as there appears to be right now, there are dozens of ways this season could go up in smoke. For starters, if Kris Joseph's knee isn't healthy, Syracuse is in trouble. If Scoop Jardine can't consistently put together 40 minutes of good, smart basketball, this team is cooked. Frankly, if Fab Melo, Baye Moussa Keita or Rakeem Christmas fail to adequately replace Rick Jackson in the middle, it'll be a really long season.

The last paragraph was just me playing devil's advocate. For the Orange to really struggle, all three of those things will have to happen, an occurance I think is unlikely.

* * *

Switching gears, I came across a piece on www.grantland.com — Bill Simmons' site that I frequent regularly — to see an article titled, "Why Syracuse Can Win It All" by Ben Detrick. Unfortunately, Detrick spun the story from why Syracuse has a shot at winning a championship into a woe-is-me tale of living in Central and Western New York and the importance of good things happening in an area where, apparently, we're all on a suicide watch. It does mention the returning players a little bit, but among the biggest issues I have with Detrich's story is this — he misses the biggest improvement Syracuse has made this season.

The biggest question for last season's Syracuse team was who would replace the shooting void left by Andy Rautins. Rick Jackson filled the leadership void, but no one consistently filled Rautins' bigger-than-anticipated hole in the lineup. During his senior season, Rautins not only was a knock-down shooter who could take big shots with the shot clock winding down, he was the Orange's best ball distributor and was a great defender at the top of the 2-3 zone. Not only were Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche not as good as Rautins at the top of the zone last year, they weren't able to master Rautins' ability to manage a game — when to shoot, when to pass, when to make sure Rick Jackson was touching the ball, when to get the ball to Kris Joseph, when to break a guy down off the dribble, when to take a quick shot and when a longer possession was needed.

Nowhere in Detrick's piece is this mentioned, nor is the solution to at least one of those problems — Trevor Cooney.

When Syracuse is good, the team has a player who can consistently make shots from the perimeter. Look no further than the Lawrence Moten, Preston Shumpert, Gerry McNamara, Demetris Nichols or Andy Rautins teams. With a threat on the perimeter who can free up space for post players, Syracuse is dangerous. With inconsistent shooting, the post players have no space to operate and the offense bogs down. Want to know why Kris Joseph struggled last year? Look no further than defenses having no reason to respect jump shooters. The lane was always clogged, leading to Joseph's propensity to draw offensive charge calls. Want to know why Rick Jackson didn't score 20 points a game last year? It wasn't Jackson's lack of offensive skills. It had everything to do with double and, in the case of Syracuse's NCAA Tournament loss to Marquette, triple teams in the post.

Jardine and Triche are capable of making jump shots, but they're not consistent shooters that you have to gameplan around, a la J.J. Redick. Enter Cooney, a 6-foot, 3-inch shooting guard from Wilmington, Delaware, who played for the USA Basketball Under 18 team and whose profile is consistent with that of McNamara— a shooter with a good floor game that you might have to hide defensively. It's Cooney, not Michael Carter-Williams, who holds the key for this Syracuse team. If Triche goes into one of his Harry Houdini-esque disappearing acts, it's Cooney who could be called on to drill a few threes. If a team wants to go to a 2-3 zone and pack the middle against Fab Melo or Rakeem Christmas, it's Cooney who could end the double teams. If a team starts clogging the lane to cut off drives by Jardine, Dion Waiters or Joseph, it's Cooney who should be the kick-out shooter.

Cooney might not start, but he'll be a key for the Orange this season.

* * *

In rapid fire fashion, here's a quick breakdown of the Orange and what I see for this season.

Guards —

Rotation: Triche and Jardine figure to start, with Waiters, Cooney and Michael Carter-Williams coming off the bench. As has happened the last few years, I don't see many minutes for Mookie Jones, who can shoot but has little ability to play defense or pass.

Breakdown: Triche and Jardine are good players, but they're inconsistent in almost every capacity of the game. Jardine should be a top flight point guard, but his sense of game situations has been lacking the last two years. Situations will call for the Orange to pound the ball down low and punish a team or for Kris Joseph to get a shot, and Jardine will jack up a three-pointer without passing the ball once. Triche will hit two or three 3-pointers in a row, then not touch the ball for five minutes. He'll make a great pass, show an ability to beat his man and get a teammate involved, and then suddenly become too selfish and want to call his own number. Defensively, they are quick enough at the top of the zone, but too often let their man penetrate down the middle of the lane, leading to foul trouble for Melo and Jackson. That can't happen this season. Played correctly, the 2-3 zone can start fast breaks off of turnovers. Played incorrectly, not only to shooters get open looks, but the big men will get into foul trouble.

I swear, on my Gerry McNamara bobblehead doll, Jardine leads the league in "Made big brother call little brother and swear to God he wasn't watching another Syracuse game in his life until Scoop Jardine wasn't on the team" phone calls. You can look it up. Jardine inspires more frantic, 40-minute phone calls than the Patriots, Yankees, Bills (my poor brother is a fan) and Syracuse football (shout out for beating West Virginia boys) combined. And the only reason we aren't talking more about Triche is that his occasional basketball stupidity is overshadowed by Jardine. It's kind of like Paul Allen being completely overshadowed at Microsoft by Bill Gates. Allen is just as brilliant as Gates, but nobody remembers that he co-founded the company. Well, Triche is just as maddening as Jardine, but, by golly, Jardine is just so damned good at making flamingly stupid plays that everybody forgets about Triche.

What makes the pair so maddening is that you can see that there are times they get it. After driving you crazy for a six-minute stretch, they'll turn in a stretch that's as good as anyone in the country. They can both quickly catch fire from outside. When they're thinking about it, they're both good passers. Either one can take their defender to the hoop. When they're fundamentally sound, they're as good as any pair of guards the Orange have had at the top of the zone in a long time.

On to Dion Waiters, a 6-foot, 4-inch slashing guard who can also pass and shoot a pretty solid looking jumper — that is, when he's not staring or swearing at Boeheim, not playing defense, threatening to leave the team because he's not playing enough or turning the ball over on three or four straight possessions. I have no idea what to think of Waiters right now — but with the rest of the guard depth on the team, I'm not too worried about it.

The wild card in this scenario is the freshmen. Cooney is a great shooter and Williams is just plan smooth. Boeheim has been known to have a short fuse with freshmen, but Cooney's ability to hit jump shots might earn him playing time immediately. And, if Triche, Waiters and Jardine revert to shoot first, ask questions later form, then Carter-Williams might be the answer to making the offense run.

Wing Players —

Rotation: Kris Joseph starts on one wing, backed up by C.J. Fair with James Southerland and Mookie Jones. Rakeem Christmas could be the starter at power forward, but Boeheim's not saying anything about that yet.

Breakdown: I've read a lot in the past week about Kris Joseph's knee issues and how much it affected him last season. Syracuse needs Joseph to be healthy and show two things — consistent range on his jump shot and a better handle on the ball in traffic. Joseph can be a lock-down defender — possibly better than Wes Johnson was — especially since the Orange play zone. Offensively, he has to be a force on the wing. Last season, when he wasn't able to hit a jumper early, he would force dribble drives into congested areas. The problem is, Joseph couldn't handle the ball well enough to get shots where he was comfortable, leading to about 13,000 offensive fouls and contested shots. People say his knee was the reason he couldn't get to the rim. I say it was his ballhandling.

We should see a lot of C.J. Fair, a 6-8 Josh Pace lookalike who observers say has really improved his jumpshot over the summer. Fair is more athletic than he's given credit for and could push Joseph for playing time if he's improved as much as people say. Let's face it, sometimes in the Big East you have to go big, and I could see lineups with at least two of the Fab Melo, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita trio playing. If Joseph isn't scoring, then look for Fair to steal some minutes.

Nobody has seen Christmas in a game yet, but at an athletic 6-feet, 9-inches, he should at least be able to rebound and run the wing, which could be good enough for 10 points a game without running a single half-court offensive play for him. If the Orange can get rebounding from Christmas, he should start right away.

Providing depth are Southerland and Jones. As was written above, Jones can't play defense and is basically a cheerleader without a skirt. Southerland, at 6-8 with a supposed great shooting ability, should be a player. Last season, when he was given an opportunity to play Southerland showed he can't play defense and is incapable of rebounding. Unless he's gotten a lot more aggressive over the summer, you can't play Southerland because he's deficient in two-thirds of basketball activities. I had really high hopes for him as a freshman, but I just haven't seen it on the court.

Post Players --

Rotation: Fab Melo should start with Baye Moussa Keita backing him up.

Breakdown: Fab Melo can't possibly be as bad as he was last season. The guy got winded putting his warm-up jacked on. During drills, he couldn't score on Bernie Fine — and Bernie's 70 years old, for crying out loud. I remember watching the season opener and seeing Melo dwarf the other kid jumping center and thinking Syracuse had found its answer at center. Man, was I wrong. When my brother and I weren't talking ourselves down from Scoop's ledge, we were pining for the days of Craig Forth at center. Given a summer playing in Olympic qualifying games for his native Brazil, I'm hoping maybe Melo comes into this season slimmed down, in a little better shape and possibly ready to step up. Syracuse needs him to average a double double this year. The funny thing is, I saw flashes at the end of the conference season last year, especially against DePaul and St. Johns, and if he has improved even 20 percent from last year, he's a viable starter. Moussa Keita, meanwhile, is a defender and rebounder. If he has any offensive game, he could pass Melo on the depth chart. Seriously, if Keita can give Boeheim six points and just catch and pass the ball, he'll play 30 minutes a game.

The wild card here, again, is Christmas. I was reluctant to write about him with the forwards because I can see him playing a lot of center this year. If your best five ends up being a combination of Jardine, Triche, Joseph, Fair and Christmas for long stretches of time, it's obvious Christmas will be filling the Rick Jackson role as the glue on the back line of the zone, offensive rebounder and occasional provider of paint touches offensively. I think if Melo slows the game down too much, or if Keita just can't handle playing 30 to 35 minutes while staying out of foul trouble, Boeheim might decide to go small and try to out-skill opponents rather than outmuscle them.

Two things could help significantly. First, not having Rick Jackson could actually help Melo by giving him more space to operate. One of the problems Melo had was that he and Jackson needed the same offensive space to operate. Jackson wasn't a threat playing in the high post. Melo didn't handle the ball well enough to catch the ball at the foul line, turn and either take a shot or dump the ball down to Jackson. With Jackson graduated, Melo gets his chance to own the low block. Syracuse could help themselves and play C.J. Fair at power forward, use him in the high post and make people defend that area of the floor. He could make a high-low entry to Melo with ease as well as being able to shoot if a double team in the low post happens.

Second, better outside shooting could deliver Melo more one-on-one opportunities in the paint. If he doesn't have to worry about a second defender coming to him, Melo, just by his sheer size and alleged agility, should be able to get a good shot. If Joseph, Triche, Waiters, Jardine and Cooney are hitting jumpers, Melo might surprise.

Prediction — If things go well, I could see Syracuse knocking down 22 wins in the regular season. There is a bear of a stretch in February in which the Orange play Georgetown, Connecticut and Louisville, catch Rutgers at the RAC (where Syracuse always has a hard time), South Florida at home followed by Connecticut and Louisville to end the season. You can't tell me Jim Boeheim doesn't want to have 19 wins in his back pocket before that stretch begins. Figure at least one win in the Big East Tournament, which should be good enough for a 4 through 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Given the right breaks, a return to the Sweet 16 is probably about right for this squad.

Of course, given that the team is ranked fifth in the country right now, despite what I would call significant questions about both starting guards and its post offense and defense, and a Sweet 16 run would be termed a disappointment.

Expectations suck, don't they?

 
 

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