Q: What do the Florida Gators, the Memphis Tigers, and the Kansas Jayhawks have in common?
A: They make up the majority of the teams that have won or played for the National Championship over the past three seasons. Oh yeah, and Syracuse has a good chance at playing all three of them this season before the Big East season even begins.
What is Jimmy thinking?! The Gators won the whole thing in 2006 and 2007, and Kansas took out Memphis last year in the Finals. Now, coming off an NIT season, we’re looking at playing each of them, and not one of those games is at home. Can anyone think of another season where we had this caliber of name teams on the non-conference agenda? Away from the Dome?? Against teams with so much recent bling??? This is simply not how SU does business.
The Memphis game is a true road game, at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. If that were the only high profile non-conference game on the schedule, it would by itself represent a strange departure from Boeheim’s usual strategy. The fact that this road matchup against a stacked national runner-up comes during the same season he’s hauling the team all the way to Kansas to play in a “neutral-court” tournament that involves, ahem, KANSAS, makes me wonder if Jimmy forgot to take his pills this offseason.
Granted we might not play Kansas. We have to beat Florida in the first round in KC — which will be a genuinely neutral-court game — in order to get to the Jayhawks. But if we do handle the Gators we’ll be in the position of playing road games in the same season against the defending national champions and national runners-up. Only Gonzaga is supposed to do things like that. I remember watching the finals between KU and MU last year and thinking to myself: my god, Syracuse couldn’t stay within 40 points of either of these teams; boy do we have a long way to go. It was disheartening at the time, and that was when we still had Donte Greene. I can’t stress enough how disorienting and potentially suicidal the 2008-2009 non-conference schedule looks on paper.
However, it’s also exciting as hell, which is the point of this post.
We haven’t had this kind of a non-conference road schedule in a generation (I’m not going to fact-check that, but it certainly feels correct), and the thought of it is firing me up. This won’t forever kill the national media’s habit of talking trash about our cupcake opponents, but it sure as heck will shut it up for one season. We will most definitely be leaving New York State before January, and then some. It also gives us a great chance to vault into the national consciousness very early in the season — a chance to make waves that we don’t normally get until we start playing the UConns and the Georgetowns.
Kansas and Memphis had a combined 8 players taken in the NBA draft last spring, which is ridiculous. Kansas alone had 5, which is insanely ridiculous. That’s the caliber of programs we’re going up against. Here’s who, thankfully for us, is now missing from those teams:
Kansas (player followed by overall draft position):
- Brandon Rush (13)
- Darrell Arthur (27)
- Mario Chalmers (34)
- Darnell Jackson (52)
- Sasha Kaun (56)
Memphis (player followed by overall draft position):
- Derrick Rose (1)
- Joey Dorsey (33)
- Chris Douglas-Roberts (40)
Um, yeah. When was the last time SU got more than one player drafted? Etan Thomas and J-Hart? Still and all, those players are gone now and in the case of Kansas it definitely provides an opportunity for SU. The news is not as good with Memphis, nor with Florida, who only lost one key guy to the NBA from last season — same as us. Let me break them down, in order:
The first test will be against Florida, who joined us the NIT last season after their back-to-back rings. The Gators had a stereotypical rebuilding year last season (though they did manage 24 wins), having lost their entire multi-Championship starting lineup all at once. They relied almost exclusively on young players, including seven freshmen. Their leading rebounder and second leading scorer last year was sophomore Marreese Speights, who managed to get himself drafted 16th by the 76ers this spring. Good for us that he’s gone, but that’s a wash with our loss of Donte Greene — and otherwise the Gators and Orange have a crap ton in common. That’s why this game scares me: both teams are relying on young-but-now-experienced guys who are expected to be ready for prime time. Both teams are loaded with high caliber recruiting classes from the past 2-3 years that are supposed to be ready to explode. Both teams are generally showing up in the bottom of preseason top 25s, and both have high expectations of returning to glory. But somebody has to lose when they play each other. This game is on a true neutral court, and whoever comes out unhappy is going to have to deal with an early-season crisis in confidence.
The Jayhawks come into this season having lost their top 4 scorers from last season and their top 5 rebounders. Basically, Sherron Collins is the only guy they have back who contributed in any meaningful way to last year’s Championship. That said, the cupboard is never bare at KU, and we can all assume that recruiting-machine Bill Self has a load of dangerous talent hiding on the bench (and in the incoming freshmen class). Will they be as good as last year? No, not even close. Which is why Kansas is getting punished in most preseason polls, barely holding on to a spot in many top 25s (and missing entirely from a few). In many ways, Kansas will be both the highest profile and the weakest of the major BCS teams we could be playing. There’s also a chance that this young team could slip up in KC and lose their own first round match against Washington, although that would be shocking given the Huskies 16-16 record last season. At any rate, SU fans should keep in mind there’s a decent chance we could play Washington instead of Kansas in KC, depending on how things play out.
Memphis is in much better shape than Kansas, despite losing the NBA’s #1 overall pick, both their leading scorers, and their leading rebounder. Most preseason pollsters have them solidly in the top 20, or even the top 15, on the strength of their returning starters and bench players, along with the #6 recruit in the country, who is poised to step in for Rose at PG. Their top 3-point shooter is coming back, as well as Robert Dozier, who put up a double-double in the championship game. They’ve got a bunch of juniors and seniors that have gained seasoning as role players, and there’s no reason to expect any drop-off from John Calipari’s usual level of excellence. The game at Memphis should be one of SU’s 3 or 4 toughest games all season. It’s fortunate that this game comes after the KC tournament and some cupcake matches, so SU will be more prepared. It will offer a bailout chance to redeem ourselves if KC doesn’t work out favorably, or a chance to leap into the top ten if things have gone well to that point. Or, worst case, it will disillusion us of any of our pretenses heading into the Big East.
Billy Donovan, Bill Self, and John Calipari are at the absolute top of the profession when it comes to recruiting, so we know we’re going to be facing serious horses in these games. SU won’t be able to outrun, out-jump, or out-talent any of these guys. However, as SU fans our theory going into this year is that no one in the country is in a position to out-talent us either. Thus, it will come down to pure execution and poise, which is a tall order this early in the season. In some ways this is a good group of high-caliber teams to play: they’re highest of high profile, but probably not quite top-ten. They’re all beatable. But they’re also all capable of ruining a lot of dreams for SU fans. Still, we’d rather have a shot at them then not, right? Right?
There are a few other notable tidbits on the non-conference schedule, besides those enormous big names. Most significantly, Virginia is repaying us for our visit to Charlottesville last season with a trip to the Dome. There’s no reason to think UVA will be any good this year, but they’re still ACC and therefore they’re evil and must be defeated. For that reason alone this is one of the most emotionally important games of the year for me. Any ACC team that dares venture into the Dome must be not only defeated, but humiliated! Additionally, the fact that we’re playing a 4th BCS team in our pre-season only adds to the rarity that is this non-conference schedule.
Other than that, we’ve got an historical grudge match against Richmond kicking off the season. The Spiders were only 16-14 last year, but they’re A-10 and therefore dangerous. These guys are more than a cupcake but less than a serious mid-major. In other words: danger zone. Cleveland St fits that same bill, as a team that went 21-13 for a small conference last year and played in the NIT. Cornell was 22-6 last year, including an undefeated run in the Ivy League and an appearance in the NCAAs — so they’ve got that on us. But I’m not prepared to think of Cornell or Colgate or any of those types as serious threats. Thankfully, there’s nothing else of note on the menu. I think what we’ve covered so far is plenty, no?