The No. 2 Syracuse Orange are in the midst of a week-long break as they prepare for the Villanova Wildcats to travel to the Carrier Dome on Saturday, Dec. 28.
Had Villanova (11-0) not been ranked No. 8 in the country, the storyline might have been about the surprising start to the Orange season. As it is, Villanova’s impressive start has the basketball world talking, which makes it seem like the pundits expected Syracuse to start the season 11-0.
They did not.
With the loss of Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland, and a freshman point guard running the show, this season was supposed to be a slow build to greatness. Their hot start is certainly worth noting, but No. 2 in the land might be a tad premature.
Syracuse’s shiny ranking is more luck of the draw than talent, at the moment. The Orange happened to be ranked high enough to start the season that after a few teams ahead of them fell, there was nowhere to go but up.
This game against Villanova should tell us more about how worthy the Orange are of their ranking.
We have, however, had the first trimester of the season to observe the Orange. The direction of the team has become clearer, and areas of strength, concern and weakness are all visible.
What is also visible is how wrong we (the experts) were in our prognostications for this upcoming season. For full disclosure, I believe I was pretty dead on in my predictions of this season, as you can read here, but there are areas where my fellow observers and I were a bit off in our predictions.
I, for one, believed that Rakeem Christmas would have a make-or-break season. To date, he is still a heck of an athlete and a great defender, but the scoring just hasn’t happened, meaning I need a new set of tea leaves because he is still the same player he was last season.
Here are five other areas we had it wrong when predicting the Syracuse season.
The struggles of Syracuse’s perimeter shooting were thought to be assured with the departure of Southerland and the lack of confidence in Trevor Cooney.
C.J. Fair actually led the team in three-point percentage last season, but he didn’t shoot the three all that often and would certainly not play that role in the upcoming season.
As luck would have it, this year’s team is shooting 36.6 percent from beyond the arc. That is actually better than last year’s team, which only made 33.4 percent.
Leading the way is Cooney, who sinks almost 50 percent of his attempts (.493). Not far behind is freshman Tyler Ennis, at .435, which gives the Orange a nice one-two punch from the outside.
Syracuse fans are most happy about this prediction being wrong.
This one is partially wrong.
I believe that Ennis will take time to develop. It is his starting point that had us all confused.
Ennis has been a godsend for the Orange and a perfect replacement for Carter-Williams. As a freshman, Ennis’ averages per game are 31.5 minutes, 12.1 points, 5.4 assists and 2.8 steals. He only turns the ball over 1.2 times per game, giving him an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.5-to-1.
These are veteran numbers.
Ennis is just a freshman and needs to fill his body out a bit, but the NCAA should be very worried about this poised young man. He does have room for improvement, which will elevate him from star to superstar.
Triche, Carter-Williams and Southerland were Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in scoring last season and are all gone.
Fair led the team in scoring, but it didn’t seem that he would be able to get much help with a cast of unproven players surrounding him.
Fair has kept his end of the bargain by averaging 17.8 points per game, but he is getting a little help from his friends.
Cooney is averaging 14.1 points per game, and Ennis is pitching in 12.1. Off the bench, Jerami Grant is contributing 12.9 points per game, which gives the Syracuse four double-digit scorers.
More importantly, each one of these four players is capable of leading the team in scoring on any given night, which, save for Grant, they all have.
Duke only has two blemishes on its schedule, a loss to No. 16 Kansas (then No. 5) on Nov. 12 and a loss to No. 1 Arizona (then No. 4) on Nov. 29. It also handled two respectable teams in UCLA and Michigan.
The unblemished Orange have some impressive wins of their own with No. 11 Baylor (then No. 18), Minnesota, California, Indiana and St. John’s.
With Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to call its own, Duke has a pair of sensational players and just might lead the Blue Devils to an ACC title and glory in the NCAA tournament, but the edge is not so assured as it was in the preseason.
I, along with most of the rest of the college basketball world, predicted that Duke would win the ACC. After seeing the growth of the Syracuse team, I am beginning to wish I hadn’t.
The tandem of Fair and Grant are a formidable duo in their own right. There is an even mix of veteran leadership and youth on this team, and the Orange have a distinct height advantage over the Blue Devils.
Duke may be the boss of the ACC, but its conference championship is no longer mutually assured.
In all truthfulness, I think I was the only one who thought this, but at 6'9" and a slimmed-down 280 pounds, DaJuan Coleman looked the part of a beast.
I'm not ready to give up, but it looks like he might be a year away.
Coleman's numbers are fractions better across the board than last season, with just 5.1 points per game and 4.6 rebounds.
He managed double digits in scoring on three occasions, but those were against St. Francis, Binghamton and Fordham.
Eventually, Coleman will own the paint. It just doesn't seem that it will be this year...yet.