It seems like just yesterday when we last saw the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team. Maybe that’s because a disappointing lacrosse season and yet another inconsistent, at best, performance from the football team failed to make me forget about the very memorable 2011-2012 season. From the Bernie Fine investigation to the Fab Melo suspensions, there was plenty of drama last season. And through it all, the team played hard and almost bonded together given the outside distractions.
In the end, they lost to a very good Ohio State team in the Elite Eight in a game that could have gone either way depending on how the referees decided they were going to call it (that’s not sour grapes either—I watched the game at an airport in Chicago, surrounded by Big 10 fans, and they all agreed it was a terribly inconsistent and ticky-tack foul plagued game that made for poor basketball and was detrimental to both teams). Maybe Cuse would have gone farther with Fab Melo in the lineup, but maybe he wasn’t eligible or deserving to be there to begin with. Maybe the vaunted Cuse zone could have flustered this inexperienced Kentucky team, with Melo neutralizing Anthony Davis in a way that Kansas could not, but maybe Kansas would have stomped Cuse in the Final Four.
Either way, what “might have been” last season has somehow led again to high expectations for this year’s team, despite the loss of three players to the NBA (if you count Melo as an NBA player in the D-League, along with Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph) and another starter and team leader, Scoop Jardine, to graduation. The 2012-2013 Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is a very good collection of talent that has size and skill on offense, both down low and from the outside, as well as length on defense that will make for a very effective zone defense. While the team has only played two exhibition games thus far, both against very outmatched teams, below is my assessment and season preview.
My high level takeaways are that this team will be more consistent on offense this year, but probably not as stingy on defense. They are a good mix of veteran experience with very high upside from the underclassmen. On offense, I think Michael Carter-Williams, despite only being a sophomore, will be much steadier running the team than was Scoop Jardine. It’s been well documented that Scoop had his very high ups and very low downs. While MCW likely won’t ever reach those same highs (mostly because Scoop’s highs usually required him taking some really bad shots than ended up going in), I also doubt he will sink down as far as Scoop’s lows (mostly because Scoop’s lows usually involved him taking some really bad shots that did NOT go in). Dajuan Coleman’s presence as a freshman man-child in the paint will also be a tremendous addition to this team. I honestly cannot remember the last time we had a post player with his kind of touch around the basket, let alone one who could consistently make free throws like he does.
Despite what I expect to be an improved inside game, I worry a bit about this team getting in a mid-season funk on offense, once again consistent with the start of playing some of the better Big East teams. It appears again that there is a lot of standing around in its half court offense waiting for someone else to do something, inevitably leading to MCW or senior guard Brandon Triche trying to penetrate to create a shot on their own or kick out to someone else for a three. The zone itself will lead to a lot of steals and transition opportunities, as always, but without Fab Melo in the middle, I do not expect to see the same number of blocks down low that also often led to easy baskets. Scoop, Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters were also exceptional not only at tipped passes and steals, but also finishing in transition. This year’s team is very athletic and has a lot of “length” in terms of wingspan and defensive range, which in theory should translate to more of the same, but it remains to be seen if they can create and finish transition opportunities as well and as consistently as last year’s team.
Like many, I was surprised to see lanky sophomore Rakeem Christmas playing the 5 position and beefy freshman Dajuan Coleman playing the 4 on defense. One would usually expect the opposite, as Rakeem, in theory, should be able to close out on the wing better than Coleman. As we saw last year when Melo was out, Rakeem still appears to be more comfortable and confident in the paint, and he is also a better shot blocker than is Coleman. Christmas, however, is not as good of a rebounder as Coleman and as we saw last season, rebounding out of the zone has consistently been a problem for a lot of these guys. I hope that this problem has been addressed in the offseason, but I think it’s often more an issue of intensity, focus and energy, all of which can be lost or at least decreased when not matched up against one specific player.
Also interesting to me in the pre-season was more use of the full court press, with Christmas back to defend the basket. I always liked this strategy going back to when they used to employ it with Jeremy McNeil on the backline to change up the pace of the game. Syracuse has the athletes and the depth to press, so I hope to see more of it during the regular season.
Once again, this team is not Kentucky or North Carolina or Duke with their rosters full of McDonald’s All-Americans and surefire NBA players. But it is still a strong collection of talent that perfectly fits Coach Jim Boeheim’s system, both on offense and defense. A brief summary of each of the nine (I still don’t quite understand—why only nine?) scholarship players is below:
Brandon Triche, Sr., 6’4”, 210lbs
Primarily shooting guard, but will take over a lot of the ball-handling duties this year with only three guards on the roster
Looks more aggressive on offense, like he finally realizes he has the skills and physical advantages to take over games
Not a vocal leader, so needs to lead by example; team cannot afford for him to lose confidence like he did last year
Conclusion: Cuse needs five points from him in the paint, five points from outside and five from the free throw line in every game
Michael Carter-Williams, So., 6’6”, 185lbs
Most NBA-ready player on the current roster, but really should wait until after his junior year to declare for the draft, unless he has a Dion-like emergence this season
Looks to be developing into what was expected from him—a very good combo guard who can run the offense, pass, penetrate and score
He looks much more comfortable from a ball-handling and shooting standpoint this season, but still needs to improve on both before he’s ready for the NBA
Conclusion: Cuse needs fewer than three turnovers per game from him. The scoring and assists will be there.
James Southerland, Sr., 6’8”, 215lbs
A good shooter, but not always a consistent one; struggles against man to man defense
In theory he is more of a small forward, but I think he will play a good about of 2-guard given the depth at forward and his historically poor rebounding despite outstanding vertical leaping ability and athleticism
Appears to have improved his ball-handling, which will be important in transition; does not seem to get nervous with ball in his hands, but he still will not do a lot of dribbling
Shot well in preseason, but we have seen that from him before; needs to do the same in big games, against big opponents who play man to man defense
Conclusion: Cuse needs him to play the “instant offense off the bench role” this season, much like Dion Waiters last year and Kris Joseph three years ago. Needs to score some two point baskets, as well.
Trevor Cooney, Fr., 6’4”, 195lbs
Pure shooter, from the Gerry McNamara mold, but has more size and strength
Will not be depended upon for ball-handling as McNamara was for much of his time at Cuse; Cooney will be more efficient spot-up shooter because he will not need to shoot off the dribble
It will be interesting to see how he fits in on offense as primarily a spot up shooter; I cannot see Cooney and Southerland sharing floor time; Cooney is more of a guard and Southerland more of a forward, but both essentially do the same thing
Conclusion: Cuse will need his three point shooting ability at some point this season. Southerland has been inconsistent shooter when Cuse needs him, but Cooney may be able to take over that role
CJ Fair, Jr., 6’8”, 215lbs
We know what to expect from CJ—he is going to scrap, hustle, slash to the basket for layups, get rebounds and score on
put-backs and strip larger players in the lane on defense
Has consistently improved his shooting ability since his freshman year
Conclusion: while a few points per game from him on the outside would be nice, Cuse needs him to do what he does best, as described above.
Rakeem Christmas, So., 6’9”, 242lbs
Looks more muscular and more confident on both offense and defense this season
Two exhibition games against undersized opponents is a small sample size, but he seems to have assumed the role of a power forward version of CJ Fair in terms or collecting points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals
Will get his normal collection of put-backs and dunks, but appears to have developed some offensive moves during offseason—has shown mini-hook shots and up and under moves in preseason
Could be a very good high-low passer into Coleman
Conclusion: Cuse needs him to be a defensive presence who rebounds the ball. Everything else is gravy.
Dajuan Coleman, Fr., 6’9”, 288lbs
Big boy—somehow he’s LOST about 20lbs; physical presence down low who can finish; still runs the floor very hard and scraps for rebounds down low and can sufficiently extend defense out to three point line
Would be dominant if he was more athletic; appears “grounded to the ground.”
Needs to let offense come to him instead of trying to force it; will lead to turnovers, charges and bad shots, and subsequent seats on the bench next to Boeheim, if he does
Mix of Dejuan Blair and Jared Sullinger, but bigger than both; will get better throughout the season
Potential NBA player if he can continue to shed weight, increase agility and add to offensive repertoire down low
Conclusion: Cuse needs him as an offensive presence in the post who can make layups and free throws and to rebound the ball well on defensive end
Jerami Grant, Fr., 6’8”, 203lbs
Scouting report was that he was bigger and more athletic, but less skilled than his brother, Jerian, at Notre Dame
I expected a more athletic Louis McCroskey—athletic, but lacking any specific skill and needing time to develop
Big surprise so far; looks to be a smoother, more skilled Damone Brown or bigger and more athletic Todd Burgan
Has apparently grown two inches since high school so he has swing player skills with height at small forward position; big and smooth, finishes well down low, gets rebounds
Needs to work on offensive skills, primarily shooting and ballhandling; if he does, could turn into an excellent player
Conclusion: Cuse needs him to be an “energy guy” off the bench; he will not get more than 10 minutes per game often, but he needs to have an impact when he does play
Baye Moussa Keita, Jr., 6’10”, 215lbs
Has improved and looks more confident defensively, but needs to rebound and, similar to Grant, make the most of the 10 minutes per game that he will play
He has apparently “worked on” catching the ball on offense, but I think it is more of a confidence issue; he freezes when the ball is on its way
Conclusion: Cuse needs Keita to be a serviceable replacement for Christmas when he gets in foul trouble in terms of rebounding and defense
While I think this team will do well, I do not think they have enough experience to be a top five team throughout the season like we saw from last year’s team. They are going to lose a few games that they should not, but they will look very good against some good teams, as well. The Big East, and college hoops as a whole, is wide open this season. Many are saying there are no dominant teams this season, which is true, as I do not think Indiana or Louisville or Kentucky will be as good as many of the “experts” project. However, I think even the teams ranked #11-#25 will have a lot of turnover throughout the season. Such is life in the “new” college basketball era, when any player showing any sense of potential gets scooped up by the NBA. Could that mean a deep run in the NCAA tournament for this Syracuse team? It might, but that will have more to do with how this team develops throughout the course of the season. There are a lot of players who need to take on larger roles with more responsibility this season.
Cuse had Kris Joseph and Scoop last year who had done the same in the past. This year we only have Triche and even his experience is limited. So it will take time, and even some practice that can only come from game situations, but I think these guys all have the capability to do it. With that in mind, I expect a solid 25-26 wins in the regular season against 5-6 losses, two to three wins in the Big East tournament and at least two wins in the NCAA’s. That gets them to the Sweet 16 at least and, in my opinion, anything past that is all upside for this team. Again, they are not going to be as consistent as last season or as dominant as three years ago when Arinze Onuaku went down, turning a national championship contender into a Sweet 16 “upset” against eventual national runner-up Butler. But they are going to be a very good team in a season with no dominant teams and few dominant players, which is a potential recipe for a deep tournament run.
About the Author: Crushing orange since the day he was born, Cuse in da House reps the upper state and now resides in Rochacha with his lovely wife and two adorable dogs. The Gait brothers adorned his adolescent bedroom walls, and he frequently dreams of forever muzzling Quint Kessenich, while often offering his own profound commentary on what used to be the fastest sport on two feet. Cuse in da House considers himself basically a doctor after studying pre-med at Cornell before selling out to the hoards of cash he earned on Wall Street during the 2001 and 2008 recessions. A wannabe foodie, he enjoys a more-than-occasional Wegmans sub and is always ready to scarf down some Dino. He hates the Yankees, really dislikes Duke and has a strong distaste for the Lakers and Cowboys. He wishes more NBA players would pay homage to Lawrence Moten by rocking high socks and is still disappointed that Billy Owens didn't make it in the NBA. Cuse in da House has an appreciation for both death metal and British 80s bands, and on the weekend he enjoys hitting up Home Depot and Bed, Bath & Beyond, if there's ever enough time.