Time to pop the lid on another season of Syracuse basketball. The “Fightin’ Citrus” finds themselves teetering on the edge of relevance. Not a single vote in the AP preseason top 25 poll. A coach who will (probably) miss a significant chunk of the season, and who can see the end of his career from here. Another tough schedule, both in and out of conference. This year we have, as has so often been the case the past few years, way more questions than answers. But nevertheless I will try to answer them. Just in case anyone is paying attention.
Q: Can Michael Gbinije be the unquestioned team leader?
A: Probably. He was almost there by the end of last season already. Rakeem Christmas was the focus of the offense but Gbinije was the spark. He made things happen. He’s gotten better every season and now is going to be asked to be “the guy” pretty much all the time. He’s going to play 38 minutes a game, anywhere from point guard to power forward. I think he will be able to handle the expanded role — just a little bit expanded from what he was already doing last year — and probably earn himself a pick in the NBA Draft.
Q: Can we expect anything more from Tyler Cooney?
A: If you are talking about Trevor Cooney, then… eh, maybe. We know he has the ability to “go off” and singlehandedly shoot another team out of the gym. We also know he hasn’t been able to do it with any regularity, when the other team’s defense chooses to focus on him. Last year he was often shut down. He showed flashes of a more complete game — taking advantage of overplays by driving to the basket — but was not consistently able to contribute in that way. That problem will only get worse unless someone on this team other than Gbinije shows that they are worth guarding.
Q: But what about the big guys?
A: We hope Roberson is ready for a starring role. His career trajectory so far mirrors that of Rick Jackson: raw flashes as a freshman, surprisingly positive contributions as a sophomore. Perhaps he is ready to make that next step to “reliable scorer and rebounder” as a junior. One difference, though, is that Jackson was playing alongside stalwart center Arinze Onuaku. Roberson is joined by Dajuan Coleman who is perhaps the most pivotal unknown of the season. If Coleman can stay on the court (not just his knees, but overall conditioning after missing so much time, and even foul trouble) we know he has the skill set to be a major factor. But until he proves it, I am not ready to count on much from him. And that will probably be the team’s biggest weakness, because the rest of the frontcourt bench is, to quote John Cleese, “wahfer-thin“. Obokoh probably is not ready for major minutes — though I will say I am higher on him than most pundit types seem to be, I think he’s got more court sense than (for example) DaShonte Riley did as a sophomore — and then there’s Tyler Lydon, who will be pressed into service in ways for which he is not prepared. He could surprise us all, but it’s dangerous to count on too much from freshman big men. Heck, remember Chris McCullough last year. He was… good. Occasionally awesome, dripping with potential, but spent a lot of time just being relatively ordinary. And he was a 5-star recruit, first-round NBA pick.
This is all to say that if Dajuan Coleman can be very good — scoring, rebounding, and defending (or at least two of those three) — the team can be very good. Without much from him, well, they will struggle against any decent competition.
Q: But these freshmen are awesome, right?
A: Sure hope so. Looks like Malachi Richardson is going to start, and based on last night’s game, he ain’t going to be shy about putting up shots. He’s going to have some great nights… but also some clunkers. Just like any freshman. (See again: McCullough, Chris.) Really, you never know with freshmen. A few are great right away, some are pretty good but take time to adjust to the college game, and some just flame out and end up off the team within two years. I’m not ready to pronounce any of these guys “The Next” anything until I’ve seen them in real action. Also, don’t forget that it usually takes a season or more for new players to master the rotations and positioning of the Boeheim 2-3 Zone.
Q: Did you forget about Kaleb Joseph?
A: Yes. My bad. Last year’s starting point guard is this year’s top backcourt reserve. He’s supposedly improved his jump shot (we shall see) but what will keep him on (or off) the floor is his defense. He had a lot of steals early in the season last year, but ended up being pretty bad in the zone when things got tough, to the point where he lost major minutes to Ron Patterson. Will he be better in his second year in the system? Honestly, who knows? He’s a major mystery. His chance to contribute will probably depend more on what is coming from the other new players. If Richardson in particular shows himself to be a capable wing player, particularly on defense, then Boeheim won’t often need to move Gbinije to forward and insert Joseph. But if Richardson struggles, that will open up time for Joseph to leave a mark on the season.
Q: Why are you talking about defense so much?
A: Because the pattern of success for Syracuse over the past several years has been built on their defense. Scoring comes and goes — how many times have you heard Boeheim say “we didn’t make shots” in his postgame statement? This is one of the huge differences between college and pro basketball. It’s (on the whole) rare for college guys to be reliable scorers. They do exist, but most college players run hot and cold and you just never know what you are going to get on a nightly basis. The usual formula for success for SU has been to play a lockdown zone, and hope you can score enough to win. It hasn’t made for many ‘pretty’ games, but it’s mostly been an effective strategy. This year, with the loss of last year’s highly effective rim protector, my guess is that the defense takes a measurable step backward. But keeping the 6′7″ Gbinije at the top of the zone will help ameliorate that problem a little. Expect to see a zone that is a little more ‘packed-in’ (to compensate for the lack of interior size and to cut down on driving lanes) and relies on length and recovery, more than quick rotations, to cover the outside shooters.
Q: So is SU an NCAA Tournament team?
A: Maybe. Probably they will be riding the bubble all season. There isn’t a lot of margin for error for this team. A key injury or unfortunate early upset could spell N-I-T. Or, they could have things break in a positive direction — Coleman comes back strong, Richardson is as good as advertised, etc. — and end up a solid mid-range NCAA seed. Preseason, Loony Lunardi has them as an 11 seed. Seems about right, until we have a better idea of who they will actually be.
See you when the season starts for real next weekend!