With last season’s Sweet Sixteen run fading in the rear-view mirror, the Orange(men) of Syracuse University returned to action this past weekend with their first exhibition contest, besting Cal-State Los Angeles 97-54. The exhibition provided insight into what to expect to see from a group of players seeking to emerge from the shadows of NBA draft defectors Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf, and Paul Harris. Although Flynn was the only player drafted, all three were major recruits and high-profile college players. The attention that the departure of the three generated in the college basketball world has fostered widespread skepticism that the 2009-2010 version can sniff the success of its predecessor. If not for high profile coach Jim Boeheim leading the group, I wonder if they would’ve been picked in the top 10 of the Big East. Fortunately for Orange fans, appearances are not always what they seem.
In spite of losing three seasoned veterans (and one other bench rotation player with a penchant for awkward falls), the Orange are not stuck relying on inexperience. The starting lineup from the weekend’s exhibition consisted of a redshirt Sophomore, a former redshirt Senior, a transfer Junior, a Junior, and another former redshirt Senior. Including the four combined years that the redshirts and transfer spent on the team while retaining a year of eligibility, that’s a combined 16 years of college basketball exposure or involvement. However, only Senior G Andy Rautins, Junior F Rick Jackson, and Senior F Arinze Onuaku played large roles on last year’s team. As a result, projections for the Orange have spanned a wide range, with some publications asserting that they could compete for the conference title while others believe they will finish in the bottom-middle half of the conference. Analysts just haven’t been exposed to enough players on this year’s team to know what to expect. There are no blue chip one-and-done recruits, there are no players from any of the Big East first, second, third teams, honorable mention list, or all rookie team from last year. So why is there a feeling of confidence and optimism in the continental US’s fourth snowiest city?
Projected lineup for 2009-2010:
G Scoop Jardine (6’1″) / Brandon Triche (6’4″)
G Andy Rautins (6’5″)
F Wesley Johnson (6’7″)
F Rick Jackson (6’9″)
F Arinze Onuaku (6’9″)
G Brandon Triche / Scoop Jardine
F Kris Joseph (6’7″)
F James Southerland (6’7″)
G Mookie Jones (6’6″)
C DaShonte Riley (6’11″)
It is unclear who will start at the point guard spot between Jardine and Triche. Jardine is a redshirt sophomore who entered with Flynn and Jackson and started some games during his freshman season, showing fundamental skills on defense and a good head for the game, if not shooting prowess or flash. Triche is a big and strong incoming freshman who Boeheim raves about, but who didn’t get much recruiting attention nationally due to an ACL tear that made him miss the AAU circuit. Rautins is a streaky outside shooter who has experienced almost everything at the college level, and who showed an ability to hit clutch shots in last year’s 6 Overtime game vs. UConn. Johnson is a transfer from Iowa State with a 42″ vertical who the coaching staff have raved about since he arrived. Jackson improved in leaps and bounds last season and is expected to clean up the glass and be a force in the lane. Onuaku set the Big East record for FG% last season in spite of a late season knee injury that caused his production to slow down the stretch. Joseph showed some promise in little action last year, and has a ton of natural ability, size, and length. Southerland is another incoming freshman who prepped last season and has the ability to hit from the outside and play controlled on defense. Mookie Jones saw little time last year but has tremendous shooting ability and size (although not the situational awareness of when to pass up a shot opportunity). Riley is the third incoming freshman, a raw, sizable big body who should be able to spell Jackson and Onuaku down low but will likely not be called on much until his game develops.
Now let’s drop the objective team overview. Listen up, because the EJSIC is giving you fair warning — fear the Orange. This is not a 10th place NIT team. This is not a bubble team. This is a team with an imposing front line of underrated monsters in Onuaku and Jackson, a high-flying projected first round NBA draft pick wing in Johnson, a streaky and clutch three point shooter in Rautins, and strong, collected decision-makers in Jardine and Triche. This team will not wow you with their freak athleticism and speed like last year’s group, but they have much more height and length and should be much improved on the defensive side of the ball in the trademark 2-3 zone. The coaches of the Big East have picked Syracuse to finish 6th in the conference behind Villanova, West Virginia, Connecticut, Louisville, and Georgetown. You can come back to either congratulate me or ream me, but I’ll claim that this Orange team will finish in the Top 5 of the Big East and be at top 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
There will be a lot of key strengths with this year’s team. In contrast to last year’s group, the first thing that stands out is team defense. While players like Flynn and Harris were known as great man defenders coming into college, those skills didn’t translate as well into Boeheim’s zone scheme. Flynn was a little too short at the top of the zone, Harris had to match up against wings that were usually several inches taller than him, and Devendorf was just plain lazy on that half of the court. When Scoop Jardine was a freshman, he showed very quick hands and good positioning at the top of the zone. Andy Rautins’s defense improved tremendously last year with added muscle, and this year he won’t have to spend any time along the back line. His 6’5″ height and length should cause a lot of disruption for opposing perimeter threats. Wes Johnson, although more wiry than Paul Harris, should be a top defender covering the weak side flank on the back line at 6’7″ with a huge wingspan and good foot quickness to crash the corner. Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku have shown that they will mix it up down low, and have cut their teeth against some notable Big East big men over the past few years. The team defense should be improved over last season, which should help the Orange squeeze out some tough games when the shots aren’t falling.
Balanced scoring should continue to be a strength for the Orange this season. Last year, five players averaged double figures in scoring per game. This year, three of those players return, and transfer Wes Johnson should join the group. The team will be very capable at getting to the line. They should get out in transition off of steals in the zone well, as per usual for Boeheim’s Orange. They will be effective on the boards, with fundamental rebounders with wide bodies in Jackson and Onuaku.
Heading into the season, there are outstanding questions that will be answered over the upcoming months of games. Who will be an effective outside shooter to spread defenses with Rautins? Will it be Johnson? Will it be James Southerland (5-5 from three vs. Cal-State LA) off the bench? Who will be able to drive-and-kick for easy buckets in the way that Flynn was so adept? Will this team value the ball more than last year’s turnover-prone group? Who will step up as the go-to guy to rely on when they need a big play at the end of the game? Will Arinze Onuaku be able to improve his conditioning enough to be a 28+ min player coming back from offseason knee surgery? Will Wesley Johnson be the dominant force that Boeheim and some analysts believe he can be? Who will start at point guard, Jardine or the unheralded freshman Triche? Will the point guard play be effective enough to empower all of the talents of this team? Will this group be able to shoot better from the charity stripe to put free points on the board, as they are likely to see a lot of opportunities? It is likely that the rotation at the end of the year will only include 7 or 8 players, as Boeheim is often prone to. Will the bench contribute enough to turn this from a good team to a very good team? These are all potential weaknesses, some of which will cause problems and losses.
The non-conference slate should give the Orange some test before the Big East schedule begins around the time we turn our calendars to 2010. Syracuse will play against Cal and either North Carolina or Ohio State in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament in November, Florida in Tampa in December in the SEC/Big East Challenge, and Memphis at home in early January to highlight the non-conference. All have the potential to be tournament teams or better. And the Big East, in spite of losing some big time players, will offer plenty of difficult tests (look for my Big East Conference preview forthcoming).
They may not have the household names. They may not have the most hated player in college basketball. They may not have any blue chip recruits. But this Syracuse team will come to play, and has the feel of a sleeper team that will crash through the Top 25. When a Hall of Fame curmudgeonly coach is positively effusive about the potential of his team, you can bet that he’s not just providing lip service. Even if they’re not on your radar now coming into the season, don’t sleep on the Orange.