Comeback Trail: 10 Things That Must Happen For Syracuse Orange to Be Ranked #1
The Syracuse Orange made an improbable rise to the No. 1 ranking in the nation last season. They began the season unranked after losing their top three players in Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf, all of whom declared for the NBA Draft (though only Flynn was actually selected).
But under the seasoned tutelage of coach Jim Boeheim and the combined leadership of Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins, the Orange quickly returned to form and became one of the most dominant teams in the nation.
They were undefeated after 13 games and ranked fifth in the country. After 25 games they were 24-1 and ranked second in the country behind Kansas. By March 1 Kansas had suffered its second loss and Syracuse stood atop both polls with a 27-2 record.
The Orange struggled in the Big East tournament after a devastating injury to center Arinze Onuaku. They were still good enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but only made it as far as the Sweet Sixteen before falling to eventual runner-up Butler.
It was a disappointing finish for Syracuse, which had legitimate championship aspirations for the first time since the 2003 season. After the season Johnson and Rautins, the two most important members of the team, both left for the NBA. Center Arinze Onuaku also graduated and took his talents elsewhere, leaving Boeheim with an inexperienced yet potentially explosive roster.
But can the team come together fast enough to make it back to No. 1?
Syracuse enters the 2010-11 season ranked 10th in the preseason AP Poll and 13th in the Coaches' Poll. There are several outstanding teams ranked above them, including defending champion Duke as the overall No. 1. But in college basketball anything is possible (like Division II LeMoyne College defeating Syracuse in the preseason).
So here are 10 things that Syracuse and Boeheim need to have happen for the Orange to return to the top of the college basketball world.
Kris Joseph Must Be The Man
Joseph had a fantastic sophomore season and was named the Big East's Sixth Man of the Year. But the 6'7" small forward out of Montreal played like a starter all year.
He averaged 27.8 minutes per game (third on the team), 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds (also third), and shot 49 percent from the field.
With Johnson and Rautins gone, it is Joseph's responsibility to step up as the go-to player on offense. But can he carry the load?
Scoop Jardine Must Emerge As The Ball Handler
Boeheim surprised several Syracuse fans when he handed the starting point guard job to rookie Brandon Triche last season instead of Jardine.
Scoop seemed like the natural choice. He started nine games during the 2007-08 season after an injury to SG Eric Devendorf and performed reasonably well, averaging 5.5 points and 2.5 assists. In the NIT tournament that year he raised his game to average 11.0 points and 4.7 assists.
Jardine sat out the next season because of a stress fracture in his left leg, but returned in 2009 ready to take over for Johnny Flynn.
Instead, Triche was the starter and Jardine was the first guard off the bench. Despite this, Jardine put up better numbers than Triche almost across the board.
Minutes - Jardine 22.2, Triche 21.3
Points - Jardine 9.1, Triche 8.1
Assists - Jardine 4.3, Triche 2.8
Steals - Jardine 1.2, Triche 0.9
Turnovers - Jardine 1.9, Triche 2.0
Triche shot slightly better from the field, but Jardine was the more consistent player. He was even named the nation's Sixth Man of the Year by The Sporting News.
If Scoop can harness his vast talents then he will give the Orange one of the best guards in the Big East, and maybe even the nation.
Brandon Triche Must Shoot The Ball
Triche was the starting point guard for the Orange last season, playing in a backcourt alongside senior Andy Rautins. But with Rautins gone now, Triche will shift over to become the starting shooting guard.
Triche is a natural two-guard who excels at spotting up against smaller players or hitting jumpers coming off screens. He doesn't have the speed or explosiveness to consistently penetrate the defense, but he does have a nose for the ball and features some crafty moves around the basket.
Last season Triche was one of Syracuse's top shooters. Though he only scored 8.1 points per game, he still shot 50 percent from the field, second only to Wes Johnson (50.2 percent) among non-frontcourt players. He also shot 40 percent from beyond the arc, behind only Johnson (41.5 percent) and Rautins (40.7 percent).
Triche is not a complete player yet. His lack of lateral quickness makes him a liability in Syracuse's zone defense and he needs to improve on his free throw shooting (63.4 percent) if he wants to be a serious threat in the offense.
But with sharpshooter Rautins gone, Triche has to become the go-to shooter from the field. If he can come close to matching Rautins' numbers then the Orange will be in great shape.
Rick Jackson Must Anchor The Front Court
Jackson is the only senior on the young Orange squad, so he has a lot on his gigantic 6' 9", 240-pound shoulders.
In addition to playing the role of competent veteran and team leader, Jackson must also occupy his fair share of the paint in the Carrier Dome. Last season Jackson and the equally proportioned Arinze Onuaku were twin towers for Syracuse and fed off each other on both ends of the court. But with Onuaku gone, it is now Jackson's responsibility to handle the bulk of the post duties.
He did a great job as Onuaku's sidekick last season, averaging 9.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. He also averaged 2.0 blocks and shot an impressive 59.1 percent from the field (second only to Onuaku's unreal and nation-best 66.8 field goal percentage).
Jackson's shooting percentages shouldn't change this year, including his 50 percent free throw shooting, but his per game averages should all go up as he will be expected to spend more time on the court.
Behind Jackson the front court only features three rookies and two rarely used sophomores. So if Jackson falters, coach Boeheim will have a horrific time trying to execute his game plan. Jackson has to perform at least up to his 2009-10 levels for the Orange to have a fighting change.
Fab Melo Must Be Dominant in The Middle
The McDonald's All-American is the prize of the 2010 Syracuse recruiting class. But the 7'0", 274-pound native of Brazil is also Syracuse's new starting center.
The Orange haven't had a man with such a dominating physical presence since the days of Etan Thomas, a 6'9", 245-pound behemoth who nearly averaged a double-double in his senior season and blocked 424 shots over four years before being drafted in 2000.
Melo is still raw, but there's no way Boeheim can keep him out of the starting lineup. He's stronger and bigger than almost everyone in the nation, and he also possesses a decent arsenal of post moves and short-range jumpers.
He won't be expected to score early on this season with four very capable scorers on the court with him. However, the Orange need him to be near perfect defensively if their zone defense is going to work.
Having a big man in the middle like Melo forces opposing teams to attack from the perimeter, playing to Syracuse's advantage. If Melo can swat away a few lazy lay-ups early in the season it will go a long way towards improving his confidence as a player and proving to the country that he's the real deal.
The Big East better be warned.
Mookie Jones Must Do Something
Mookie Jones is an incredibly talented swingman who was one of the most highly touted members of the 2008 recruiting class. (His scouting grade was the same as Kris Joseph's—96). But in two injury-shortened seasons for Syracuse, Mookie has barely stepped onto the court.
After redshirting his first season because of a muscle tear in his right hip, Mookie appeared in only 17 games last year and played sparingly, averaging only 10.5 minutes in the games he played.
Once on the court, Mookie's presence was a mixture of severe defensive lapses and boneheaded shots. He never seemed to fully grasp Boeheim's defensive schemes and failed to live up to the hype on offense. His lone positive contribution was his three-point shooting, leading the team with a 44.6 percentage (though he only took 56 three's).
After Syracuse's loss to Butler, Mookie tweeted that he was thinking about transferring to a smaller program where he could earn more playing time. But he's still in Syracuse and is the lone player on the Syracuse bench with legitimate Division I experience.
Mookie is still a gifted outside shooter and at 6'6" and 220 pounds he has the size and length to be an effective defender in the Syracuse zone. The question is if he can ever bring everything together. If he does, he will replace last season's version of Joseph as the first forward off the bench and key member of Boeheim's seven-man rotation.
Dion Waiters Must Be Steady Off The Bench
Waiters is the second prize of Syracuse's recruiting class. The 6'4", 210-pound shooting guard from Philadelphia is regarded as a potentially great scorer who already features an effective offensive game. He excels at getting to the rim and finishing strong, and is a good shooter from anywhere on the court. He's capable of handling the ball, but is better suited as a shooter and slasher. His defense still needs work, however.
Waiters will get a lot of playing time this season because Boeheim doesn't have another guard on the bench who he can trust. But if Waiters can play like a starter rather than just as a rotation player, then it will give the Orange perhaps the most talented backcourt in the nation between Waiters, Triche, and Jardine.
The key for Waiters will be to improve his defense enough that Boeheim feels comfortable inserting him into the 3-2 zone during big moments. He certainly has the size and strength to be a dominant defender, but it will take time for him to adapt to the team defense.
If, and when, he does, Waiters could become Syracuse's most complete player and an instant burst of offense off the bench. Don't be surprised to see Waiters earn some starts over Triche later this season if he can perform.
C.J. Fair Must Battle For a Rotation Spot
Fair is a lesser known Syracuse recruit than either Melo or Waiters, but he may be just as important.
The 6'7", 196-pound wing from Baltimore excels at getting to the basket and loves to play above the rim (as the video above shows). He has an incredible handle for someone of his size and is an adept passer. He's a good, but not great, shooter from the perimeter and sometimes struggles to create his own shot. His length and quickness allow him to be a strong defender against either the small forward or power forward position.
Fair was once a big-time prospect until he tore his ACL in 2008 and spent at least the next year recovering. He should finally be healthy by now, so it will be interesting to see if he can bring all his talents together on the court.
Fair's role in Syracuse will at first be limited until he proves himself to Boeheim. But someone has to be the first forward off the bench and it's going to be either Fair, Mookie Jones, or sophomore James Southerland. Of the three Fair is probably the worst shooter but the best defender. Wonder which one Boeheim is going to pick?
Baye Moussa Keita Must Anchor The Zone
Last but not least among Syracuse's prized recruiting class is Keita, a 6'11", 210-pound giant out of the famed Oak Hill Academy (former home of Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, and Jerry Stackhouse).
Keita, like most big men, is still very raw offensively and gets most of his points off of easy dunks. He has a decent mid-range jumper, but it's not a shot he really wants to take. On the defensive end, though, he's a beast, using his length, speed, and ridiculous wingspan to block and alter shots (think a poor man's Hasheem Thabeet).
Keita may not have Melo's upside, but he may be more polished right now. Remember, Melo didn't start playing basketball until he was in the ninth grade. The Orange don't need Keita to score; they just need him to be a consistent presence in the heart of the zone—something which a player of Keita's size is perfectly suited for doing.
Melo will start at center but Keita will be his primary replacement off the bench, used to give Melo a rest and to try to keep him out of foul trouble. Keita should also get some looks at the power forward position as an occasional replacement for Jackson.
Jim Boeheim Must Execute a Suffocating Zone Defense
The key to Syracuse's success as a team is, and always has been, the effectiveness of its famed 3-2 zone defense. This zone depends on each of the five players to move as a unit to fill up gaps on the court and trap on the sidelines. It also depends on the length and quickness of the players, who use their wingspans to deflect passes and alter shots.
Last season the Orange defense was one of the best in the nation, giving up an impressive 66.4 points per game. (That number was actually 123rd in the country, but is inflated because Syracuse plays in the Big East). Leading the way for the defense was future lottery pick Wes Johnson, who used his 6'7" frame and long wingspan to make it exceedingly difficult for opposing offenses to get into a flow. Gone is Johnson, as is 6'9" Arinze Onuaku and 6'4" Andy Rautins.
This season those three spots in the zone are being replaced, respectively, by Joseph (6'7"), Melo (7'0"), and Triche (6'4"). On paper it looks like Syracuse has more length this season, which it does. But executing an effective zone is dependent upon the players understanding how to run it. With four rookies coming in it will be paramount for Boeheim to get them up to speed as soon as possible.
If he does, he could be looking at his second career National Championship.