It’s an important day today, everyone. Months of preparation, countless hours spent in the tireless pursuit of a dream, and it all begins tonight. Around 9pm EST the results will be in, and we will be witnessing the first steps on the path towards a truly historic time for our nation. I speak, of course, of the 2010-11 Syracuse Orange basketball season, which gets underway at 7PM with an exhibition against Kutztown (PA).
The hoops team has not got quite as much preseason attention from the fans as it did last year, thanks in no small part to La Revolucion Anaranjada that is currently overthrowing the Big East football power structure. Orange Nation has not had to cling to the prospects of basketball success to sustain it through another dismal October. But it’s time to start paying some mind to these guys because they are about to launch a season that could be one for the ages.
They return only two “official” starters, but really have 4 out of their 7-man “core” returning, including one guy who is a projected first-round NBA pick. They’ve got talented youngsters coming in, led by the preseason pick as Big East Rookie of the Year. And of course they remain led by a coach who ranks among history’s greatest. They begin the year high in the rankings (#10 AP, #13 Coaches) and with a legitimate shot at a national title if everything holds together, and the ball bounces the right way.
College basketball seasons are usually about transition, and I don’t mean fast break dunks. I mean, how do you replace those players who graduate or go pro early? Good programs have to face this question just about every season, and SU this year is no exception. Last year, the replacement parts were for the most part all “known quantities”: Rautins the 5th-year senior replacing Devendorf, and Wes Johnson (who had already been in the program for a year) taking over for Paul Harris were both easy changes for the team to absorb. Triche replacing Flynn was a major change, but having Scoop available — in his third year with the team — made that also a fairly smooth change overall. This season, we’ve got another batch of major changes:
Kris Joseph replacing Wes Johnson — Everyone says Kris is a potential lottery pick. He certainly showed stretches of amazing talent last year, and if he has improved his long-range jump shot, he’ll be a tough matchup for anyone. The question on everyone’s mind is whether he is ready to shoulder so much more of the scoring load, and to handle being a primary focus of opponents’ defensive attention. But a lot of people are overlooking what Wes contributed in other ways. I’m curious to see whether Kris can replace some of the rebounding and weak-side help defense in the zone that Wes so ably provided.
Rautins is gone; who takes his spot? — As the dust settled on last year, there seemed to be a consensus among the fans that this season’s starting backcourt would be Triche and Jardine, each as a sort of hybrid point guard/shooting guard. But neither has so far displayed the outside stroke that Rautins did, and we are all wondering where the consistent deep threat is going to come from on this team. Enter Dion Waiters. If you read the tea leaves, Waiters has a chance to be the starting 2-guard this year. He’s got the talent, according to the coach. But the tunnels of the Dome are littered with talented freshmen who came in and just weren’t ready. He could be Gerry McNamara or he could be Demetris Nichols (who, you may recall, started the 2nd half of the season as a freshman after Billy Edelin pulled the second of his three vanishing acts). We just don’t know yet.
Fab Melo replacing Arinze — I think this is easily the most important change of them all. Easily. It is on the broad shoulders of the young Brazilian that the chance for a magical season may truly sit. Just as with Waiters, it’s difficult to project how good an incoming freshman will really be. The difference is that if Waiters is not quite ready for prime time, SU still has two experienced guards to take on the bulk of the backcourt duties. The same cannot be said of the center position. Melo has the task of replacing a three-year starter who was a serious presence in the paint on both ends of the floor. And he’s going to have to do it whether he’s ready or not, because his backup is even more green than he is.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that as Fab Melo goes, so will the season go for the Orange. Arinze Onuaku brought the extra dimension to this team last year. Without him, we were merely great. With him, I honestly think we would have made it to the finals. Melo’s offensive game is more polished at this point in his career than most big men who have come to Syracuse. This will be crucial because so much of last year’s success arose from the two-headed post look that SU was able to present. No opponent could match up on the interior with both Arinze and Rick Jackson. Nobody. One of those two guys was always in a position to dominate the paint on offense, as both were polished scorers when they got the ball in close range. The SU offense last year was almost entirely three-pointers, fast breaks, or layups by one of the two big men. Almost exclusively. If Fab Melo has an interior game that approaches the one Onuaku brought, then the same approach should yield similar results. But if teams can get away with putting a skinnier guy on Fab, denying him the ball or pushing him out of the post, the half-court offense will lose a lot of its effectiveness.
On the defensive end, my concerns boil down to this: can he go more than 4 minutes without fouling a dude? Because freshman centers are usually incredibly foul-prone. They are so used to swatting high school shots left and right that they do not have the footwork to play solid interior defense on a college level. We’ve seen this pattern historically at SU going all the way back to Rony Seikaly. Arinze last season was a brick house in the paint. Luckily the Big East has lost a few of its marquee big men (Greg Monroe and Lunchbox Harangody come to mind) so things might be a little easier for Melo than they were last season for Arinze.
What about the bench? — last season’s bench was highly unusual. It was basically two guys, but those guys were just as talented as the starters. This year things look more traditional, in the sense that the starters are clearly a step above the rest (with the obvious exception of the point guard spot, assuming that Waiters cracks the starting lineup). But what is missing as compared to last year is experience coming off the pine. The best we have in that department is the enigmatic Mookie Jones, who’s appeared in 26 games so far in his career, mostly against cupcake opponents. He did see some Big East action last year, though, and he could be ready for a season similar to Scoop’s last year — he’ll be in his third year as part of the SU program, and has had the time to mature and grow as a player and a teammate. We know he can shoot. We don’t know if he can defend, pass, rebound, etc.
For most teams in Syracuse’s situation, the thinking regarding these bench guys goes something like this: “Jones will provide shooting and size in the backcourt, Keita will back up Melo at center, Southerland will get some time behind Kris Joseph and provide some range at the 3 spot, and C J Fair will be a combo forward and provide some size off the bench”. Here’s the thing, though — most of that won’t happen. We can say it right now. Every year we look at the roster, see 9 or 10 somewhat talented guys and say “This will finally be the year that Boeheim plays all his guys.” And it NEVER HAPPENS. Sure, everyone gets to play against Colgate, and maybe even the last 5 minutes against South Florida. But when the games matter, the bench gets shorter. Boeheim’s personnel management strategy, which has been successful year in and year out, is this: “Play the best players as much as possible”. This is why Jonny Flynn averaged 932 minutes a game his freshman year. Jimmy sees little value in giving his lesser talents five minutes every game — those are five minutes that you don’t have one of your better options on the floor. He’s got a great conditioning program, and anyway he understands that today’s players play so much ball, year-round, that they can generally play 40 minutes if they need to and still remain effective. So he doesn’t need to go ten deep to win games, and if he does go ten deep he might lose some games, therefore he’s not going to go ten deep.
So, even though Boeheim recently said “All four freshmen will play,” I’m pretty sure he only means in November. Because once the real games start, we will be looking again at a 7- or 8-man rotation. My best guess is that there will be one primary guard sub (whoever doesn’t start from among Triche, Jardine, and Waiters) and one primary forward sub (Jones, Fair or Southerland). Keita will back up Melo if he’s ready for prime time; if not, the forward sub will come in when Melo sits, and Jackson will move to center. Who that forward sub is, I have no idea. Southerland is the tallest of the three, but he’s skinny; Jones has the most experience but is perimeter-oriented; Fair might be the most athletic but is still raw. If one of these guys is ready to go, there are minutes there to be had.
Don’t be surprised, though, if the Orange frequently go to a three-guard look with Waiters as the “small forward”, similar to those times last year when Triche, Jardine, and Rautins would all be on the floor together. As I said, the best players play as much as possible.
What does it all mean? You said something earlier about a championship…? — Here’s how I see it. The returning core is on par with just about any group in the country. We haven’t talked much about Rick Jackson but he is going to be a force this year. Very few teams have a post presence of his caliber and experience, particularly in the Big East. (Look at the two preseason all-conference teams. There is not a single post player on either the first or second team. It’s a perimeter league this year. Who would you take over Rick Jackson — Yancy Gates? Herb Pope? Mouphtaou Yarou? Alex Oriakhi? The pickings are slim… but I digress.) But those four guys can only take SU so far. The fate of the season rests in the hands of the new guys. If the freshmen play too much like freshmen, and none of the sophomores is ready to step up produce at a big-time level, we’ll have enough to get to the Tournament but not enough to make a deep run. But on the other hand, if Melo and Waiters are as good as folks say they are, and if we get one more guy to be a solid contributor off the bench, the team has no limit to how far they can go.
I’m ready. Bring it on.