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A Big Logjam

The experts have spoken, and they’ve labeled Syracuse a top-five team at this earliest of stages for preseason rankings. I very much believe the Orange can be a top-five team, but there’s a lot to sort out. While I’m a deeply-entrenched critic of Scoop Jardine, I think the bigger questions coming into the season lay with the frontcourt. With Rick Jackson gone, there’s still a deep group of big men, but none are known quantities at this point. The safety net that Jackson provided has been taken away, and in order for Syracuse to be successful in 2011-12, someone has to step up.

As you recall, Jackson carried the load very admirably as a senior, averaging a double-double. He also had to play nearly every minute because the duo of Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita couldn’t get in the flow of the offense, and Melo had trouble on both ends. With DaShonte Riley on the shelf rehabbing from foot surgery, the team was overly reliant on Jackson, and when teams started to double him late in the season, Syracuse struggled. As it stands, we still don’t really know what should be expected from SU’s big men. Jackson is gone, and in addition to Melo and Keita being back, DaShonte Riley will shed his redshirt and Rakeem Christmas will come to town, giving Jim Boeheim four bigs from which to carve out a rotation.

Fab Melo came to Syracuse as a prospect with as much hype as raw ability. Having played basketball for only a few years, there was a lot for him to learn once he picked up a ball. He showed a lot of potential coming out of prep school, and scouts and recruiters were especially smitten by his soft shooting touch and range. Big things were expected once he came under Boeheim’s wing, and for several reasons, he just couldn’t get in the swing of things. The game moved fast, he got flustered quickly, and Melo didn’t do himself any favors by skipping practice late in the season, prompting Boeheim to proclaim that “he’s done playing for now.” After missing two games, Melo returned to action, having served his punishment. Cracking double figures against DePaul and St. John’s to close out the regular season, Melo built a small measure of momentum, though he struggled in postseason play. While it was very easy to get frustrated with Melo’s play, there remains a ton of untapped potential, so much so that he has to be given chances next season as long as he stays out of his own way.

The big surprise of last season was the emergence of Baye Moussa Keita. Before Riley opted to have surgery and miss the season, Keita appeared headed for a redshirt year to gain strength and learn how to play in Boeheim’s system. While he learned the game at the college basketball factory that is Oak Hill Academy, he may have been even more raw than Melo was coming into his freshman year. His time came sooner than expected, and he instantly became a fan favorite with his ability to run the court, make hustle plays and play tough defense. Although he had little semblance of an offensive game outside of putbacks and finishing on the break, the defensive plays he made were enough to get people excited. He averaged over seven rebounds per game in his first five contests, but once conference play came, he tailed off quickly. After totaling 20 or more minutes in seven non-con games, he would crack that mark in just one Big East game. Part of that limitation stemmed from a hand injury he dealt with in the home stretch, but it’s more common than not to see freshmen struggle in the conference with the lengthy schedule and high volume of teams. After undergoing surgery to fix his hand, it’s hard to be certain of whether Keita will be able to add the upper body strength necessary to be a force down low. A medical redshirt is a possibility here, but then again, a big part of the SU fanbase believed that he was in line to sit out last season and look what happened.

Fresh blood will be pumped into the SU rotation with the arrival of Rakeem Christmas from Philadelphia. Like Melo, Christmas is a McDonald’s All-American, but also like Melo, what he can bring on offense is still quite hazy. As the top-rated center in the 2011 recruiting class, it’s no secret that defense is Christmas’ strength, with an advanced ability to block and alter shots. While most of his ability is natural, once he committed to Syracuse, his coach implemented a zone defense to help ease his transition. He has some scoring ability, but his post game is very much in development. As a freshman, Christmas will have to beat out Keita for playing time, but it isn’t difficult to see Christmas coming out on top, already having some experience in the 2-3 and a slight size advantage.

The final candidate for playing time is DaShonte Riley, who continues to build strength following an operation last fall that caused him to miss the entire season. Based on playing time, we don’t know all that much about Riley. He was limited to mop-up time early as a freshman behind Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson, and, when SU went small, Wes Johnson. When Onuaku went down in the Big East Tournament in 2010, Riley was thrust closer to the rotation before he was ready. All we’ve been given to learn about him is 157 minutes of game experience, the equivalent of about four games, and nothing since March of 2010. At 7’0 and 230 pounds, Riley is has the most size of anyone on next season’s roster aside from Fab Melo, which puts him in a nice position coming into the season, but there’s till a lot of experience for him to overcome in order to propel himself into the mix.

There’s a lot to be sorted out down low next season, but I think Melo and Christmas will emerge to lead a wide-reaching back line to accompany Kris Joseph. While SU centers have never been known for producing offensively in their first two seasons, Melo has the most promise in that department, and he can also be a brick wall on defense with great size. Christmas could hold down the other spot, and Boeheim could even ease him along by going with a small lineup that includes Kris Joseph and CJ Fair sharing the court. It should be very interesting to see how things play out as the biggest question mark of the rotation is answered.

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