Syracuse Basketball: Top Storylines to Follow in Orange's 2014 Offseason
The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team has one word to sum up its 2013-14 campaign.
After starting the season with 25 victories against no losses and achieving a No. 1 ranking in the NCAA, the Orange fell back to earth and sputtered into the postseason and finished the season 3-6, including a disappointing loss to Dayton in the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.
In the world of Orange basketball, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts in terms of where the team failed.
With a freshman point guard coming in and the team losing three of its top-four scorers, expectations for Syracuse were that the team would be good, but would take time to develop.
The team developed right away and after beating Duke in a thrilling overtime game at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1, it seemed the Orange were a shoo-in for an ACC championship in their inaugural season.
The basketball gods had something else in mind.
In what could only be described as an institutional collapse, anything that could go wrong with the Orange went wrong.
Aside from losing sophomore forward DaJuan Coleman for the season after a win over No. 8 Villanova on Dec. 28, the Orange's campaign in the new year became a laundry list of unfortunate events.
Trevor Cooney, who started the first half of the season shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc, lost his shooting touch. Rakeem Christmas, while being an effective defender, never found his scoring touch. Tyler Ennis, who had one of the greatest freshman seasons of all time at Syracuse, became a tad sloppier with his play in clutch moments, where earlier in the season it was inconceivable.
Jerami Grant’s back went bad. Baye Keita suffered through a leg injury, and for as good as C.J. Fair has been through his career, he had difficulty handling the ball and struggled to create his own shot.
All of this added up to a team that could defend very well, but as competition became familiar and unafraid, baskets were very difficult to come by.
Without dwelling on it any further, Syracuse sent out a message early that it was going to be a tough out in the NCAA tournament, and to its credit, it was a tough out, for Dayton.
In the wreckage of the season, Syracuse fans are left to look forward and hope the new stable brought in by Jim Boeheim and company can right the ship. Fortunately, the Orange have a stockpile of talent on the bench and some exciting newcomers who may help ease the pain of the memories of a season lost.
Syracuse will bid adieu to Fair, Keita and Ennis, and the word is not yet out on Grant. Coming in are point guard Kaleb Joseph and forward Chris McCullough, who are two of the more exciting freshmen to step on campus for Syracuse in quite a while.
We will now take a look at those freshmen and the biggest questions facing next season’s Syracuse Orange.
Will Jerami Grant Stay?
Sophomore sensation Grant averaged just over 12 points per game and led the team in rebounds with 6.8 per contest.
When healthy, he was an invaluable tool who could grab impossible rebounds and often came out of nowhere for thunderous putback dunks.
Back problems and getting into foul trouble in the NCAA tournament prevented Grant from cementing a high position in the NBA draft, which now seems to be somewhere in the teens according to a report by Brent Axe at Syracuse.com.
There is no doubt Grant will go to the NBA. The question is: Will it be this season or next?
With Ennis leaving and Fair graduating, the Orange ship could be in Grant's control in the upcoming season, which could elevate him to lottery status.
Another back problem could be detrimental to his chances.
Smart money says Grant stays as he can improve his position next season, and he and his family are not in any kind of financial dilemma.
But smart money isn’t always right.
Will DaJuan Coleman Return?
According to an article by Donna Ditota of the Syracuse Post-Standard, Coleman could be playing as early as September or as late as December.
Coleman, whose knee has been a problem for two straight seasons, is a powerfully big body in the middle of the Syracuse 2-3 zone.
Injury has delayed his growth as a player, but his massive 6’9”, 280-pound frame, combined with his knowledge of the nuances of Boeheim’s system, could go a long way toward helping the younger forwards develop.
His insertion into the lineup, assuming Grant returns, would give Syracuse an incredibly impressive frontcourt.
A sidelined Coleman would only hurt.
Can Kaleb Joseph Replace Tyler Ennis?
Joseph, a star at Cushing (Mass.) Academy, has some big shoes to fill as he enters his freshman season.
Originally thought to be coming in as the understudy to Ennis, Joseph will be thrust into the role of replacing Ennis.
While it is a little much to ask him to be Ennis, Joseph will be asked to guide this team from the point. This is all too familiar as Syracuse fans felt the same way when it came to Ennis replacing Michael Carter-Williams.
Joseph doesn’t have to be Ennis. He is more of a slasher and has a couple inches on Ennis at 6’3”, but he also has a good mid-range shot.
He will be aided by Michael Gbinije, who has been training to be an all-everything guard for Syracuse and could also be helped by Cooney, who will have to become a better ball-handler without Ennis there.
Syracuse will be forward heavy and will need a point to be able to pass into the post but also take shots when need be, a la Ennis. If he can be efficient with the ball and control the pace of the game—as a point guard is supposed to—he should be fine.
If not, Syracuse fans might see a whole lot more of Gbinije than they expected.
What Will Life Be Without Fair?
While losing Fair will hurt the Orange, McCullough, from IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), brings in an ability that Fair never seemed to have.
He can explode to the basket.
Fair could throw down a monster left-handed dunk and conjure up images of Hakim Warrick, but he never had a great first step and struggled enough to create his own shots so much that the Orange’s scoring suffered.
McCullough is 6’10” with a seven-foot wing span and can explode to the basket with a quick first step and amazing athleticism.
That being said, Fair was almost automatic with his jumper from the elbow, but next year’s team should have a much different look.
McCullough has the potential to give Syracuse the dominant baseline presence it’s been craving for a few years. With the potential of a frontcourt that also contains Grant, Christmas and Coleman, McCullough may be given the green light to add a complementary dynamic to the Syracuse forwards.
A forward line of Grant and McCullough could end up being very exciting for the Orange if Grant decides to stay.
How Will Trevor Cooney Train Between Seasons?
Cooney had a marvelous start to the season, shooting 50 percent from three at one point, but his demons caught up with him, and he struggled as the season went on.
Cooney’s improvement from his freshman season to this season’s sophomore campaign was largely attributed to his offseason work and an increased physical stamina.
Once the word was out that Cooney could shoot, he drew the attention of his opponents and spent most of his time on offense running around the court to get an opportunity for a shot.
By the time the end of the season came, Cooney looked worn down, which led the way for increased minutes for Gbinije at the 2.
A new season and a new focus on creating his own shot could work wonders for Syracuse.
Cooney is already a great shooter, but without a quick first step, he found it difficult to drain contested shots. At 6’4”, he is underrated as a slasher, but he can get up the court and dunk it home.
If Cooney can figure out a way to put space between him and his defenders, Syracuse’s offense will benefit greatly.