After a somewhat improbable run to the 2013 Final Four, the Syracuse men's basketball team went through some serious roster turnover. Gone is point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who was a lottery pick in this year's NBA draft.
With him went seniors Brandon Triche and James Southerland. Triche started every game throughout his four-year career and ended up as the program's all-time leader in games started and played. Southerland had to work his way into the rotation as his career progressed, but his three-point shooting (39.8 percent in 2012-13) was a valuable weapon to a team that had few outside shooting threats.
After losing three major contributors, it would be easy to write the 'Cuse off as a middle-of-the-road team this year. However, Jim Boeheim still has plenty of talent to work with, and the 2013-14 version of Syracuse basketball could be just as good, or even better, than last year's squad. Here are five reasons Syracuse can make a return trip to the Final Four.
*All stats courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise noted.
Much to the delight of Syracuse fans, C.J. Fair decided to return to the 315 for his senior season instead of entering the NBA Draft.
Despite Carter-Williams' lottery status and Triche's experience, it was Fair who led the team in scoring and rebounding last year. Fair paced the Orange with 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in 34.9 minutes per contest, which was also tops on the team.
As one of only two seniors on the team this coming year, Fair knows his role as a leader is going to be expanded. Per Donna Ditota of syracuse.com, Fair said:
It's not so much telling guys what to do, it's just directing guys. If we have a slip up as a team, I think it's my job to get everybody back up. Just be one of the motivators on the court, someone that anybody can come and talk to about anything on and off the court.
Fair's game has improved every season he has been with the Orange. Where Fair really saw improvement last year was with his three-point shooting. His three-point percentage jumped from 25 percent during his sophomore year to 46.9 percent last season.
With another summer of work under his belt, Fair's game should be even better, and he has to be considered as one of the favorites for ACC Player of the Year, a distinction he has said, also per Ditota, is "achievable."
Jerami Grant, left, and Baye Moussa Keita are a few of several key returnees for Syracuse
Syracuse may be trotting out new starters in the backcourt, but the team returns a heap of talent up front.
Sophomore Jerami Grant was a pleasant surprise during his freshman season for the Orange last year. Grant filled the void left by Southerland as the senior dealt with an eligibility issue that caused him to miss six games.
In the games Southerland was out, Grant averaged 9.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 33 minutes per game (counted using box scores from Syracuse's game schedule).
That stretch of games included Syracuse's upset of then-top-ranked Louisville, the eventual national champion, on the road in which Grant scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds in 35 minutes of work. Those big minutes, combined with the Final Four run, were valuable experience Grant will carry over to an expanded role this season.
Joining Grant (6'8") along Syracuse's front line are senior Baye Keita (6'10"), junior Rakeem Christmas (6'9") and sophomore DaJuan Coleman (6'9"). Add that to Fair (6'8"), and Syracuse possesses a formidable defensive unit that will bother teams with its length (more on that later).
The core of Keita, Grant, Christmas and Coleman combined to average 17.5 points and 15.3 rebounds per game last year to go along with 3.8 blocks. As the veterans of the team, this group's role will grow, and the players, Grant especially, will be relied upon to carry a heavier load on both ends.
With its move to the ACC, Syracuse will no longer play yearly conference games with long-time rivals such as Georgetown and Connecticut.
However, new rivalries will soon be formed with the likes of Duke and North Carolina. Old Big East rivalries will also be renewed with teams like Boston College and Miami. Pittsburgh came along for the ride to the ACC, so that rivalry will continue, as well.
Syracuse has a lot of marquee games on the schedule this year. The out-of-conference schedule leaves a bit to be desired, but the Orange will play a few big games with teams like Indiana and Villanova coming to the Carrier Dome. The Orange will also square off with Minnesota in the Maui Invitational.
All three of those teams were tournament teams last year and will provide a challenge for Syracuse this year.
The ACC schedule is no cakewalk either.
The 'Cuse does have the benefit of playing North Carolina at home, but road tests against the likes of Duke, Pittsburgh, Maryland and Virginia are awaiting the Orange.
Pittsburgh has owned Syracuse of late, winning 10 out of the last 14 games. Syracuse also hasn't won at the Petersen Events Center since the 2003-04 season.
It will be a tough road through the ACC this year, but an abundance of tough games will give the team plenty of experience to help them make a deep tournament run.
Jim Boeheim started his Syracuse career as a walk-on with the team in 1962. After playing professionally for a few yeas, Boeheim became a graduate assistant in 1969 and never looked back.
Nine hundred and twenty wins, four Final Fours and a national title later, Boeheim IS Syracuse Basketball.
With Boeheim leading the way, this team could easily return to the Final Four. Boeheim knows how to get the most out of his players and how to prepare them for a long season.
Even though the Orange lost a lot of its offense, the defense was what carried the team through the tournament, and Boeheim is the master of the 2-3 zone. Speaking of which...
If there is one thing that is synonymous with Syracuse Basketball, it is the 2-3 zone defense. The system is Boeheim's calling card and last year's version was as terrifying as ever.
Per ncaa.com, Syracuse ranked fifth in the nation in blocks per game (6.2) and third in field goal percentage defense (36.9) while surrendering only 58.7 points per game. The team also snatched 9.1 steals per game.
One way teams look to beat a zone is by shooting a lot of threes.
Good luck against the 'Cuse.
Teams shot a paltry 28.4 percent against the Orange zone last year, which was the third-lowest rate in the country. This was due to the length Syracuse had all over the floor which allowed players to challenge outside shots more effectively.
Boeheim is one of the best there is at teaching the zone, so his players always know how to properly rotate and close out on shooters on the wings.
In Fair, Grant, Keita, Coleman and Christmas, Syracuse has plenty of experience along the front line in the zone. The big question mark will be with the guards at the top.
Carter-Williams and Triche provided unprecedented size at the top of the zone, and their talents will surely be missed. However, redshirt sophomore Trevor Cooney will be in his third year in the zone and showed flashes of defensive brilliance in his limited role last year.
Michael Gbinije, who transferred from Duke, had to sit out all of last year after his transfer, but he was still able to practice and learn the zone. At 6'7", Gbinije is another long athlete who will surely harass ball-handlers out front.
Making the Final Four is never easy. Getting back after you've made it is even harder. But with a loaded frontcourt, a great coach and a great defense, Syracuse is on the fast track to make a return trip to the Final Four. And if Tyler Ennis is as good as advertised...watch out.