Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim
How early is it permissible to speculate on the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team’s chances for another run at the Final Four?
Let’s go with now.
Syracuse, after bidding adieu to the Big East for the more stable shores of the ACC, is loaded for bear but will need to fill some significant shoes in the upcoming season.
Gone are seniors Brandon Triche and James Southerland, the latter of whom was the only serious three-point threat on the Orange roster.
Also gone is Michael Carter-Williams, who has declared himself for the NBA Draft and is a possible No. 7 pick for the Sacramento Kings or could fall out of the lottery altogether.
After a 30-10 campaign and a trip to the Final Four in which the Orange lost a heartbreaker to Michigan, Syracuse will have a different look. The past few Orange teams have been guard-heavy with great support from the forwards. This year’s incarnation should be more forward-oriented and a lot more physical.
Student athletes returning to the Orange include seniors C.J. Fair and Baye Keita, junior Rakeem Christmas and sophomores Jerami Grant, Trevor Cooney and DaJuan Coleman. Not to be forgotten are Michael Gbinije, a Duke transfer who could see time as both a shooting guard and a small forward, and Tyler Ennis, the blue-chip recruit who will be asked to step into the role of point guard for the new Orange.
Joining Ennis as a starter in the backcourt should be Cooney. With Cooney listed at 6’4” and Ennis speculated at 6’2”, the Orange will lose the height and experience of Triche and Carter-Williams, but all is not lost in coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone.
With a year to play zone against a conference that isn’t used to seeing the Syracuse zone, the Orange may be able to do some on-the-job training. With the leadership of C.J. Fair and the assumed progress of his frontcourt, there doesn’t even have to be a drop off for the Orange.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons that Syracuse could still be considered a contender for the 2013-14 season.
The Syracuse nation let out a sigh of relief when C.J. Fair announced he would return to the Orange for his senior season.
Fair led the Orange in scoring and rebounding and was even the team’s best three-point shooter.
A 6’8” southpaw, Fair has grown his game tremendously. He has blossomed from a hard dunker to a reliable, heady player who has a nose for the ball and is about as reliable a mid-range shooter as Syracuse has had in years.
In the tradition of John Wallace, Hakim Warrick and so many other Orange players, Fair will have an opportunity to put Syracuse on his shoulders as a senior, and all indicators say that his shoulders are strong enough to hold the weight.
Fair’s all-around talent has some in the media speculating that he should be a player of the year candidate in the ACC, and if the Syracuse guards find a way to make shots and spread out the floor, allowing Fair to have open lanes, the entire ACC could be fair game.
Rather, Fair’s game.
Syracuse will likely start Rakeem Christmas (6’9”, 242 lbs), DaJuan Coleman (6’9”, 288 lbs) and C.J. Fair (6’8”, 220 lbs) in its front court.
Coming off the bench should be Jerami Grant (6’8”, 205 lbs) and Baye Keita (6’10", 215 lbs).
This is an immense lineup.
Beyond Fair, however, there hasn’t been a great measure of success.
Coleman spent his freshman year struggling on offense before succumbing to knee surgery, and Christmas was very sporadic as to when he would get involved in a game and when he would watch the action.
Grant, however, was an exciting addition to the Orange lineup, filling in until James Southerland’s return from suspension. Grant showed the ability to be a strong rebounder, get to the basket and had a decent jumper when needed.
Keita was a very reliable backup and should fill that role again this season.
The wild cards remain Coleman and Christmas.
Coleman, assuming he is healthy, could be a major factor in the Orange offense. His sub-par numbers don’t have to be an indicator of his talent, as many Syracuse big men have floundered their freshman seasons, only to blossom in later years.
Fab Melo and Arinze Onuaku are just two on the long list of Syracuse big men who developed into great players. Coleman has the talent and bulk to become a force down low.
Christmas, on the other hand, is no slouch but would be well served to work on his post game. With the decrease in three-point shooting, the Syracuse frontcourt will be relied upon for the bulk of the scoring. This can be accomplished with the Orange’s great size, but there must be will.
Before you laugh, as Mike Waters of Syracuse.com pointed out, Trevor Cooney’s freshman year statistics are on par with some of the greats of Syracuse, including Andy Rautins and Kris Joseph.
The big difference is playing time.
Cooney shot less than 30 percent from beyond the arc for the year, but there is more to this. Cooney knew he had no shot of breaking into the starting lineup, but he did have great pressure to get the ball into the net, as Syracuse had no real three-point shooter other than James Southerland.
Cooney has been touted as a sniper, but his on-the-court performance did not show this. I believe it comes down to getting into a rhythm. With exponentially more playing time this season, Cooney has a great chance to take the next step. At 6’4”, he should be able to get his shots off around the perimeter, and as the only pure shooter on the team, he should get fed plenty of balls, granted they fall for him.
Cooney will likely split time with Michael Gbinije at the off-guard position, but both should see plenty of time. This can work in Cooney’s favor, as he will have a purpose on the offense but will get adequate rest while staying in the flow of the game.
Of course, this is all speculation, and Cooney could buckle under the pressure of his new role, but I don’t think he will. With one redshirt season and one playing season under his belt, Cooney has the chance to make this Orange team very dangerous by bringing defenders out to the perimeter. Tyler Ennis should do a good job drawing defenders in his own right, but without Cooney making shots, there won’t be a reason to guard the outside.
After working with Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara for two years, I see Cooney having a breakout season.
For the last decade or so, Syracuse has almost exclusively been playing the 2-3 zone. Coaches in the Big East have had years to dissect it and plan for it, yet few have been able to succeed against it.
The reasons for opposing teams’ frustration with the zone include the limited time they see it, the difficulty of mimicking it, and most importantly, there’s no secret to beating it.
Just like breaking Louisville’s full-court press, it can be done, but it is difficult and takes a lot of work combined with mistake-free basketball. This is a lot to ask of kids.
Syracuse invites three-point shooters because it is difficult to make enough threes, as Syracuse is usually one of the nation’s leaders in three-point defense.
In fact, Syracuse’s opponents took the second-highest number of three-point attempts in the nation last season, and Syracuse was still No. 3 in three-point percentage.
Then there is the incredible length of the Orange. Syracuse was No. 13 in the NCAA last season, and it tips more balls than it steals.
It takes rolling up sleeves, lots of motion and crisp passing if a team wants to beat the zone, and the truth is that most teams can’t keep up that kind of work for 40 minutes.
Syracuse will certainly have its off days, but the 2-3 zone, when played well, is as powerful a weapon as exists in college basketball, which the ACC will find out very quickly.
With names such as Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and, now, Jamie Dixon, to name a few, there is no shortage of fine coaches patrolling the sidelines in the ACC.
Boeheim’s 920 wins in a program he essentially built are a testament to a man who has adapted, recruited and understands the game on a level that few ever have.
His ability to recruit players who fit his system has been incredible, and falling short in the Final Four last season seems to have rejuvenated him for the time being.
That is, if he was ever juvenated.
Boeheim’s experience as a Team USA assistant for Krzyzewski seems to have served him well and should give him an insight into Coach K’s style that few coaches are privy to.
Boeheim, even at 68 years old, remains one of the elite minds of the game. He’s never had a losing season and has won fewer than 20 games just twice in 34 seasons as a head coach.
Essentially, moving to a different conference can prove daunting to the uninitiated, but Boeheim’s style will force teams to adapt to him, rather than him adapting to them.
This doesn’t mean that Syracuse is guaranteed anything, but it does mean that, as they always are, the Orange should be contenders to go far this season.