In every failed relationship there comes that awkward period where both parties understand that it’s over, yet the shared belongings of life – living spaces, retirement accounts, children – still hold them together. Some are able to sever ties with ruthless precision. Some drag events out years. Most are in between. Welcome to Syracuse basketball.
In an era when conferences are blindly making power grabs to secure their financial future, teams are jumping ship. There are a lot of broken relationships. The next few years of the college hoops scene will be dominated by these failed marriages. They’ll be hope looking forward, and pain and bitterness looking back.
At some point in the future Syracuse and the Big East will be friends again, or at least cordial. The Big East will check Syracuse’s Facebook page to see how they’re doing with their new friends. Syracuse will ask shared acquaintances to see about the Big East – are they happy? But for now it’s bitterness. For now it’s posturing and games. This season will be remembered for everything that is ending. The future doesn’t get to start yet.
What happened last season: Syracuse wasn’t seriously tested until the 6th game of the season – the preseason NIT Final against undefeated Stanford. In that game they looked like a very beatable team for 35 minutes. Then they closed on a 15-3 run and the season was on. A week later they beat Florida. Then Marshall. George Washington. North Carolina State. They rolled through the non-conference slate at 13-0. Once Big East play began only two of their first seven opponents even came within ten points. It wasn’t until late January that they lost – playing on the road at Notre Dame as the No. 1 team in the nation, without the services of a mysteriously non-playing Fab Melo. Syracuse shook that off, won ten more, and finished the regular season at 30-1.
In the Big East Tournament, after all the nonsense of double-byes, the Orange scraped by UConn ending their second attempt at a dream run through Madison Square Garden, but then fell to Cincinnati when their furious close – ala the Stanford game in the NIT – fell just short.
The NCAA Tournament – played without a suspended Fab Melo – featured a sweet-16 win over Wisconsin when Bo Ryan misplayed the end-game, and then a loss to Ohio State in the Elite 8. The Orange ended at 34-3.
What they lost: Syracuse had a great blend of talented underclassmen playing alongside senior leaders. Seniors Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine are gone. Joseph bulked up as a senior and was able to play through contact – however, that contact happened a lot less as he became more perimeter oriented. He took care of the ball (largely through not making aggressive passes), and, as usual, contributed with steals and deflections on the defensive end. Jardine, a polarizing figure, will be missed by as many fans as are happy that he’s gone.
The more serious loss was an early entry to the NBA draft – sophomore Dion Waiters. Waiters – who seemed to be involved with every fast break the Orange executed last year – blew up after an unsteady yet productive freshman season. For a player who a) didn’t possess a great outside shot or b) wasn’t exceptionally fast, Waiters had an innate basketball ability to score points and play defense. Shifty, crafty, smart – whatever the word is you want to use, Waiters was that and he’ll be missed.
Another sophomore early entry – 7-0 Fab Melo – will also be missed. He only played about half the team’s minutes (51.4%), though he was able to fill the middle of the Syracuse zone in a way that no one else on the roster could. He blocked 13% of the shots when he was in the game, which was the best in the Big East (and it wasn’t even close) and he was the best offensive rebounder on the team.
What they have: The returning starters are senior Brandon Triche and junior CJ Fair, who both have a lot to offer and for opposite reasons. Triche, a 3-year starter, is the player you never notice. But that’s a good thing. He plays within the system and is very effective. Fair, meanwhile, you always notice because he always seems to be in the right spot to make something happen. His game is still somewhat raw, but his understanding of the sport is exceptional. Make a list of Big East players poised to break out and Fair has to be at or near the top.
From the bench Syracuse returns 6-8 senior James Southerland, a 3-point specialist whose shot always looks like it’s going in (though in reality, he made fewer than 34%). Sophomores Michael Carter-Williams and Rakeem Christmas also return after having gained valuable run as freshmen. Carter-Williams, due to the departure of Waiters and Jardine, should get plenty of opportunity to become a major contributor. He made 39% of his (limited) 3s and was a surprisingly adept passer for a freshman 2-guard. He has the reputation of being able to score from anywhere, and the size/athleticism combo of a future 1st rounder. If he breaks out as a sophomore then the potential for the Orange this season is unlimited. Rakeem Christmas filled in admirably for Fab Melo in the NCAA Tournament, but still played like a freshman. His game is nothing like Melo’s however, as Christmas is long, lean and bouncy. If he can play in the corner of the Syracuse zone he could be special. Stuck in the middle, he’ll be good. The other returner who saw action is junior Baye Keita. From Senegal, Keita is still raw, but played well in the NCAA Tournament helping to fill the void left by Melo.
The newcomers start with Trevor Cooney,a 6-4 gym rat who smartly redshirted last season rather than sitting behind a stacked back court. His minutes will largely be determined by how well he understands the zone, and how well he shoots the three. The two freshman recruits are both consensus top-50 players. DeJuan Coleman (consensus No. 18) is 6-9, has a massive wingspan, and a solid, all-around game defined by strength. He’s not the most explosive or athletic guy on the court, but can eat space and cause all sorts of problems if he can stay in shape. Jerami Grant (No. 41), at 6-8, is much less polished on the offensive end, but has the frame and athleticism to develop into a big time player, especially if he can shoot/handle well enough to play the three.
Where they’re going: Syracuse is near the top of the list in terms of what they lost. They had six players who played at least half the team’s minutes, and four of those are gone. So naturally this is going to be a rebuilding year another team which can legitimately cut down the nets in April. Even with the losses, the Orange are still loaded in both the front and back courts. If they can find a couple serious threats from deep (Southerland? Cooney? Carter-Williams? Triche?), and if the newcomers pick up on how to play the zone, then Syracuse should be one of the favorites in their final season in the Big East.