Road to the Final Four at Ford Field: No. 24 Syracuse

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Road to the Final Four at Ford Field: No. 24 Syracuse

A National title. A Sweet Sixteen. Two first round losses. Two NIT quarterfinal defeats. It's safe to say Orange basketball has been in a state of decline, but it's not for a lack of talent.

Coach Jim Boeheim brought in one of the best recruiting classes following the National Championship, but that 2003-2004 freshmen class didn't win a single NCAA Tournament game in its final three years on the SU Hill.

The Orange coaching staff also brought in highly touted players Eric Devendorf, Paul Harris, and Mike Jones, but all three haven't panned out yet to be the superstars they were hyped to be. Jones isn't even playing Division I basketball; at last check, the former Mr. South Carolina Basketball was playing at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa.

Recruting experts labled last year's SU freshman class as one of the top in country, but once again failed to produce an NCAA Tournament win. The marquee name in last year's class, small forward Donte' Greene left after a disappointing season to Orange fans for the NBA.

Despite the loss of Greene, the 'Cuse finally looks poised to put all its talent together and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

After struggling for two seasons with depth, the Orange will run with its deepest bench since 2006. Injuries to guards Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins relegated the 'Cuse to just seven healthy scholarship players, six of which return for the 2008-2009 season. 

The return of Devendorf and Rautins and the addition of freshmen small forwards Mookie Jones and Kris Joseph allow the Orange to use nine players. According to Ken Pomeroy's statistics, only seven teams in the entire country got fewer minutes from their bench than SU.

The added depth will allow the 'Cuse to work in some more man-to-man defense to compliment Jim Boeheim's well known 2-3 zone defense. The proliferation of three pointer shooters, especially among mid-major schools has played a part in the decline of the SU program.

The Orange's 65th ranked defense in terms of efficiency should improve for two reasons. The NCAA's decision to move back the three point line by a foot will allow SU to extend its zone defense and force teams into lower percentage threes.

The SU defense will mature as a whole. Last year, the 'Cuse ranked second to last in the entire country in experience. The average experience of the players Jim Boeheim put on the floor was just 0.6 years.

The 'Cuse will also be improved on the offensive side of the ball.

Before Eric Devendorf went down an ACL injury in December, the Orange offense was one of the most prolific in the country. The game Devendorf tore his ACL in against East Tennessee State, they scored 125 points.

During the conference slate, Boeheim's squad began to struggle to put points on the board due mainly to poor shot selection by several players, the largest culprit being now Sacramento King Donte' Greene.

SU will have a solid balanced inside-outside attack. They have almost every element a superior offense team needs to be explosive.

Sophomore point guard Jonny Flynn has quickly become one the best in the Big East if not the entire country. He battled through the 'Cuse's injury problems playing 313 consecutive minutes at one point. Flynn is also the Orange's leading returning scorer at 15 points per game and assists at 5.3 per game.

Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News named Flynn the top point guard in the country.

Backing up Flynn was supposed to be Antonio "Scoop" Jardine, but according to the Syracuse Post Standard, Scoop will most likely red-shirt his sophomore season after suffering a stress fracture during the 2008 season. Jardine didn't tell coaches about the injury because he didn't want to hurt a team already functioning on just six scholarship players.

The loss of Jardine won't hurt the Orange too much as Scoop was expected to be a role player who would only see five-ten minutes a game as the back up point guard.

At the two guard, Jim Boeheim will rotate two guards into play. The first will be the aforementioned Eric Devendorf. When healthy he's a dynamic guard who can slash his way through the lane but also stretch the defense with his outside shooting ability.

Devendorf's best career numbers came in the 2006-2007 when he came off the bench, so it's a possibility that Syracuse native Andy Rautins who's also coming an ACL injury, will start. Rautins is a long range sharp shooter who nailed 39% of his threes in Big East play in 2007.

In the front court, Junior small forward Paul Harris, Senior power forward Kristof Ongenaet, and Junior center Arinze Onuaku will likely start.

Harris has received the nickname "Do it all Paul" because Harris can and has played every spot on the floor but center. His strength and leaping ability allows the 6'4'' Harris to out-rebound players six inches taller than him. The Junior tallied double-digit rebounds in 13 games last season.

Belgian native Kristof Ongenaet should start at the four. Ongenaet is the typical glue guy. He rarely does anything flashy (but don't tell Marquette that after he threw down two thunderous dunks), but instead hustles, hustles, and hustles some more.

Red-shirt Junior Arinze Onuaku will man the center once again. A.O. injured his knee and missed his sophomore season, but returned last year with authority when he broke the backboard at Midnight Madness. He finished second behind Georgetown's Jonathon Wallace in the Big East in effective field goal percentage at 62.8%.

Onuaku's ability to finish around the hoop and the guards' ability to score from the perimeter will allow SU to score against a variety of different teams. 

 

2008 Season Forecast

Jim Boeheim compiled a strong non-conference schedule that includes a trip to Memphis and Kansas City for CBE Classic where the Orange will play Florida and either Florida or Washington. SU will also host Virginia in the Carrier Dome. An 10-3 or 11-2 mark in the non-conference schedule is likely.

A brutal conference schedule could trip up the 'Cuse. SU struggled mightly in 2008 in conference, but a better team means a few more wins. Look for a 10-8 or 11-7 record in conference.

Add it up and SU should finish in the 20-22 win range which will be good enough for an NCAA Tournament berth.

 

#25 Kentucky

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