A seasonal tradition is upon us.
Just as surely as turkey and gravy will have most of America napping about midway through the Jets and Patriots Thanksgiving feature presentation, cupcakes will also be eaten in November.
But they won’t be eaten around the dinner table.
It will be Syracuse that will feast upon some inferior opponents as if it were a right of Autumn…or so the legend goes.
Without fail, the early Syracuse season arrives each year with a smattering of yawns and boos from naysayers who proclaim that the Orange preseason schedule is as soft as it is easy.
Those naysayers sometimes have a point, but does it matter to the Orange if they play Duke or Duquesne in November?
I say no.
There are only two things in college basketball. First, is to get into the NCAA tournament. Second, is to be prepared to win the tournament. To get to the Tournament, Syracuse and 14 other Big East Conference teams will battle over a long and taxing season. There’s nothing any of the conference teams will show Syracuse that they haven’t seen before, but the question remains: Does the easier schedule get Syracuse prepared to play top-tier talent?
No, but that’s not what it’s supposed to do.
The beginning of the schedule is and has always been to figure out what’s good, what’s bad and what needs work. What separates Syracuse’s early-season needs is its defense.
The Syracuse 2-3 zone is an institution in and of itself and must be prepared for. Whether the opponent is Seton Hall or Rowan University, that team must try to prepare for a defense that it won’t see the rest of the year. Optimally, the Syracuse defense will dictate the game, but more importantly, it allows its players to see how teams will attack the zone. Positioning is the same no matter what school Syracuse plays, and for this team, fine-tuning the zone will take precedent over most other aspects of the game.
Jim Boeheim knows how the coaches in his conference will attack the zone, but everything in due time. The zone fuels the transition offense, so it is imperative that this defense is learned first and best.
I’m not saying that playing good teams early on is a bad thing. But trial by fire isn’t the confidence booster it’s made out to be.
Another school of thought is history. There have been a few years that Syracuse has missed the tournament due to a lack of quality non-conference wins, or so the powers that be declared. In 36 years of coaching, Boeheim won the Big East tournament five times and won nine regular season titles. With the exception of missing the 1993 tournament for violations, he has never missed the postseason. This alone should show that the early season is overrated, but there’s more.
This year, Syracuse has one ranked opponent on its pre-Big East schedule: San Siego State. The Orange already won that game. From here on out, it's Princeton, Colgate, Arkansas, Eastern Michigan, Long Beach State, Monmouth, Canisius, Detroit, Temple, Alcorn State and Central Connecticut.
Not exactly a list of world beaters, but last year’s Syracuse team tied the record for most wins in the Big East Conference ever and its schedule had a remarkable similarity. The only ranked team that Syracuse played last year in the first half of the season was Florida. Mix in Fordham, Manhattan, Albany, Colgate, etc. and there were plenty of cupcakes too, but Syracuse still managed to go 17-1 in conference. Had it not been for a Fab Melo suspension before the trip to Notre Dame in January, Syracuse would have had a very good chance of going undefeated in conference.
The light schedule had nothing to do with being prepared for the conference schedule. It was merely a time for fine-tuning.
In the 2002-2003 season, Syracuse opened up against Memphis in Carmelo Anthony’s first game in Orange. Syracuse lost the game, but Anthony had a break-out performance. He would see his first and only ranked, non-conference opponent two months later in January in the form of Missouri. In between he saw Colgate, Cornell, UNC Greensboro and Canisius, just to name a few.
I think he was prepared just fine, and just like almost every Syracuse team before and after Anthony, this cast will be fine, too.