Syracuse Hoops 2008-2009 Preview

Brian BelsitoCorrespondent INovember 9, 2008

Look for “Two Thumbs Up” from the critics about Syracuse basketball in 2008-09!

The last six seasons in Syracuse, New York have been very similar to the career of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, the master of suspense-filled blockbusters whose films are rarely predictable and always leave the viewer with questions and sometimes filled with a feeling of unfulfilled potential.

Shyamalan burst on the scene in 1999 with his most critically acclaimed work of art to date, the spine-tingling The Sixth Sense, and he has been trying to reinvent the buzz created by that movie ever since.

In similar fashion, Jim Boeheim’s Orange have been trying to duplicate the magical run to the National Championship that took place when one-and-done superstar Carmelo Anthony and his supporting cast put their name in bright lights on the sport’s biggest stage in 2003.

Since The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has produced a full spectrum of works, including the nail-biting and thought-provoking Signs, the underrated, hair-raising, suspense-filled The Village, and the ultimate in unfulfilled promise, The Happening.

Each of these movies were brilliant in their storytelling, had hugely successful leading men (Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, and Mark Wahlberg), and had viewers at the edge of their seats wondering what was going to happen next.

In similar fashion, the Syracuse basketball program has been trying to recreate the magic that was the 2003 NCAA Tournament, only to leave its fans with that tantalizing taste of potential mixed with unfulfilled dreams.

As with each of Shyamalan’s efforts since Sense, Boeheim has had his share of leading men (Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, and the hugely disappointing Donte Greene), but this season the Syracuse Orange are banking on depth and teamwork to create a buzz at the box office. Look for a step in the right direction from this cast.


The Backcourt

Depth was something that last season’s Orange lacked, especially in the backcourt, where Big East Co-Rookie of the Year Jonny Flynn logged an astounding 35.5 minutes per game. Look for that number to come down a little this season, but for Flynn’s production (15.7 points and 5.3 assists per contest) to rise as he feels the effect of not having to play so many minutes.

A ferocious on the ball defender in high school, it is rumored that Flynn has been lobbying coach Boeheim to play less of the Syracuse 2-3 zone and play more man to man defense, which should make him an even more dynamic presence on the court.

A lead guard in every sense of the word, Flynn should be able to improve on his assist numbers with his ability to drive to the basket, draw in the defense, and kick it out to an improved set of three-point bombers.

Injuries to key backcourt running mates Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins were huge reasons for Flynn having to play so many minutes while learning on the fly last season. Both Devendorf and Rautins have recovered from torn ACLs and are looking to make a splash in 2008-09.

The former McDonald’s All-American Devendorf is ready to spark life back into the Orange with his “heart on the sleeve” style and his three-point bombing, and he looks ready to return to the form that had him thought of as one of the better guards in the Big East before the injury.

Rautins, the son of former Orange standout and team Canada Coach Leo Rautins, will provide depth and the ability to stretch opposing defenses with his long-range accuracy (40.6 percent from three-point range as a sophomore in 2006-07). He should not be affected by the new, further three-point line being instituted in college basketball this year.

Sophomore Scoop Jardine will provide depth in the backcourt. After having played some big minutes in key stretches during his freshman campaign, Jardine will be given the opportunity to grow and learn behind the upperclassmen.

The Frontcourt

The departure to the NBA of enigmatic and often times lackadaisical Donte Greene will leave a void in the frontcourt, but Boeheim has brought in a promising group of recruits and has a solid front line to work with headed into what should be another rugged season in the Big East.

While Greene had the ability to create matchup problems for opponents, it was his willingness to stand outside and hoist 22-footers all night long that kept the ‘Cuse faithful scratching their heads. With the three-point punch being provided by the backcourt this season, look for the Orange frontcourt to mix it up inside and improve on their rebounding numbers this season.

After flirting with the idea of turning pro, small forward Paul Harris has returned to campus with an improved midrange jump shot and his ever-present “Junkyard Dog” style. At 6’5”, 230, Harris is built like Karl Malone and runs the floor with the same runaway train mentality that the Mailman displayed during his playing career.

Harris averaged 14.5 points and 8.2 rebounds as a sophomore and should post similar numbers this season.

Power forward will be manned by senior Kristof Ongenaet, who brings toughness and experience to the frontline. Not one to score a lot, Ongenaet plays with tons of energy and will provide depth. Look for Harris to slide down to the power forward spot at times when Boeheim wants to play a three-guard look with Flynn, Devendorf, and Rautins playing together.

At center, Syracuse features the solid Arinze Onuaku. Making a huge impact during his sophomore year, Onuaku provides scoring and rebounding in the middle and shoots a high percentage from the floor (second in the Big East last season at .628 percent).

Onuaku has worked on his shot blocking during the offseason and averaged 8.1 rebounds per game last year. Onuaku is very strong and has developed into one of the better low post scorers in the Big East.

Sophomore Rick Jackson will also provide depth along the frontline and will give Boeheim the versatility to go big by putting Harris at the small forward, Onuaku at power forward, and Jackson at center. Jackson has a developing low post game and is a decent rebounder who must improve his strength in order to compete in the Big East.

The 2008-09 recruiting class has brought in two promising kids who will provide depth on the frontline, and both of them have the potential to burst onto the scene and become stars in an already loaded Big East Conference.

6’6” swingman Mookie Jones from Peekskill, New York is a silky smooth slasher who can get to the basket and score as well as hit the three. He has been battle-tested in high school, leading his team to consecutive state titles, and it should be fun to watch him develop.

6’7” Kris Joseph is also a slasher type, built in the mold of a young Scottie Pippen. Joseph can get to the basket with ease, and his passing skills are top-notch for an incoming freshman.


Final Thoughts

In a conference as loaded as the Big East is this year, it is easy to overlook this Syracuse team. After missing out on a bid to the tournament the past two seasons, the expectations in upstate New York are high, and the fans are thirsty for the return of their Orange to the top of the Big East standings.

The Orange roster has all the makings of a buzz-creating Hollywood blockbuster: leading man/star potential (Flynn and Devendorf), a great supporting cast (Harris and Onuaku), and very solid role players (Rautins, Ongenaet, Jardine, and Jackson).

If one of the newcomers (Jones and Joseph) bursts on the scene, look for the Orange to make a deep run into the tournament and return their name to the bright lights of the Big East marquee.

With Jim Boeheim at the helm, it should make for an interesting season in Syracuse—one that very well could end with two thumbs up and long lines at the box office.