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Plenty of Challenges Lie Ahead For SU In The Non-Con

October 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Syracuse’s non-conference schedule has been a sticking point for national pundits for as long as I can remember. Over the last few years, though, the vitriol has died down as the Orange have ventured out to play road and semi-road games in places like Tampa, Kansas City and Raleigh.  This season, SU’s schedule strength is once again nothing to sneer at, but there will also be the usual smattering of filler opponents. For a team that lost as much as the Orange did, I don’t have any real qualms.

1. San Diego State (Battle On The Midway) – The season tips off with a bang as SU faces one of the top programs to come from a non-BCS conference in the last five years. The Aztecs have put together an amazing prolonged stretch of play, averaging 28 wins over the last three seasons. This year should be no different, and the Orange will have its hands full with Jamaal Franklin, one of the nation’s 25 best players, and Chase Tapley. It would have been nice if this game was scheduled later on in the schedule with each team a little more refined than they figure to be early on and free of the variables that come with playing in such a unique setting, but beggars can’t be choosy.

2. Wagner – About as exciting as it sounds. The Seahawks will have the services of Dwaun Anderson, a transfer from Michigan State, but first-year head coach Bashir Mason won’t have any answers for a rested Orange team.

3. Princeton – The Tigers are one of a few nonleague opponents that could jump up and bite the ‘Cuse if they aren’t careful. Princeton was only made the favorite in the Ivy League after the recent Harvard scandal came down, but they’ll be no slouch. Like the Orange, the Tigers don’t have a ton of proven depth in the backcourt, but certainly aren’t lacking for it down low as they’re led by a very good forward in Ian Hummer. It’s worth pointing out that on the night before Thanksgiving, the Dome crowd may be a shell of its usual self, and that may help Princeton stay with the Orange. I see this game being a lot closer than most expect and it will be a tough challenge for SU’s younger players.

4. Colgate – The Patriot League will sport two strong teams, neither of which are Colgate. Let’s keep moving.

5. Arkansas (in Fayetteville) – Kentucky, Florida and Missouri are getting a ton of hype in the SEC, and deservedly so, but SU’s lone true road foe of the non-con has a really solid chance to check in right behind that triumvirate. Mike Anderson is still trying to make the Razorbacks his own, but he definitely has a few pieces. All eyes will be on the matchup between the Orange’s guards and potential 2013 lottery pick B.J. Young, and if the Orange can pull of the win, I see it being the type that only grows in value as the season wears on with the Razorbacks making moves in the SEC standings.

6. Eastern Michigan – Jim Boeheim throws Rob Murphy a bone for the second straight season. You may recall that last season, the EMU matchup was the first game SU played following Bernie Fine’s dismissal. Like many coaches of his echelon, Murphy is holding things together with some nice transfers as he puts his stamp on the program, but I don’t see it being enough to keep things close.

7. Long Beach State – Just three days after taking on Eastern Michigan, Long Beach State makes the long trek to the Dome as part of its annual gauntlet of a nonleague schedule. While the 49ers turned some heads last season by competing with Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina and Kansas State, they came up short each time and graduated their top four players. Though they return just one starter, LBSU was nonetheless tabbed as the preseason favorite in the Big West this season and is yet another program that will rely on newly-eligible transfers (including a pair from the Big East in Dan Jennings and Tony Freeland, formerly of West Virginia and DePaul, respectively).

8. Monmouth – Following Wagner, Monmouth is another NEC team that shouldn’t give the Orange much trouble. Six seniors return from an uptempo squad that forced more turnovers by rate than all but six schools in the country last year, so that may put SU on its heels if the team isn’t prepared. Ultimately, though, this one has the look of just another tune-up as the Orange have better talent across the board.

9. Canisius – Canisius topped 80 points in a game just once last season and had one of the nation’s worst defenses. You probably won’t be surprised, then, to learn that they won just five games and finished among the bottom 15 in RPI. This is SU’s opener for the Gotham Classic “tournament,” and while I get that every team needs a few cupcakes to feast on, I worry slightly about Canisius’ effect on the Orange’s RPI because they look like such an unfit opponent. SU should have no trouble cruising and using most of the game to determine bench roles.

10. Detroit – SU’s next opponent in the exempt event is the Titans, a team the Orange beat early in the 2010-11 season. They still have Ray McCallum, and if you want to feel old, Juwan Howard, Jr. will be eligible after sitting out a transfer season. The reigning runners-up of the Horizon League may be another team that puts some heat on SU before the start of league play just because

11. Temple (in Madison Square Garden) – One team on its way out of the Big East faces one on its way (back) in. Reasonable people can disagree, but if Temple is only the third-best team SU will play in the non-con (I lean slightly towards Arkansas after San Diego State), the schedule is more than fine. The Orange may need for its usual MSG semi-home court advantage to be in conference tournament form. The Owls look to fill the voids left by Juan Fernandez and Ramone Moore, who graduated after what felt like 17 years playing under Fran Dunphy. Temple has a deep core of wings and swingmen, but as of now, it’s unclear how their backcourt and post situations will shake out.

12. Alcorn State – The Orange get a breather as they go into the home stretch of the non-con. Just about everything I said for Canisius also applies here. The Braves won nine games in 2011-12, and I can’t decide which is worse: That three of their wins came against non-DI teams, or that one of their 22 losses came against one.

13. Central Connecticut – A sweep of the three NEC teams on the Orange’s schedule wouldn’t be quite comparable to the sweep of four Big 12 teams in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, but that will be the result if SU takes care of business in its non-conference finale.

Even though I’ve been counting the days, it’s still crazy knowing that we’ll have exhibition play in under a week and the real thing in just two.

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Ranking Syracuse’s Breakout Candidates

October 18, 2012 Leave a comment

While the Orange lost four prominent players from last season, most of this year’s rotation will be familiar. The supporting cast from last season will be asked to fill the shoes and step into larger roles. While all of us hope those guys can become all-conference types in Syracuse’s last season the Big East, there probably won’t be enough minutes to propel everyone to such lofty status, and a more Darwinian approach is likely to prevail.

So who will break out and rise from role player to star player by the end of the season? The following rankings are based on a mix of the player’s ceiling and the playing time I expect each to receive.

1. C.J. Fair – Brandon Triche is getting most of the hype as the senior leader, and I’m very excited to see whether or not he makes the leap we’d like, but since we’re talking about ceilings here, I have to give the first crack to the headbanded one. More on Triche in a moment, but what I absolutely love about Fair and have since we got our first look at him two seasons ago is that there are very few things he doesn’t do well. He can shoot, he can defend, he can rebound, he can hit free throws and he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps most relevant to this conversation, though, is the fact that he’s great at minimizing mistakes. Towards the end of the regular season, he played at least 35 minutes in five straight games and turned the ball over just four times in that span. In 26.4 minutes per game, Fair had a microscopic turnover rate of 10.6%. That number was good enough for fifth in the Big East in the 2011-12 season, and none of the four players above him are back. When you play for Jim Boeheim and show the kind of control Fair has, you don’t see the pine all that often. Though he endured a rough 7-27 slump late in the season, few of those shots were ill-advised and he broke out of it with a clutch performance against Wisconsin. The only thing left for Fair to master is his three-point shooting, but reports indicate that he’s come a long way in that department. Don’t get me wrong – I do think James Southerland will continue to get chances, but I see him as more of a spark than a full-time mainstay. I look for Fair to have a huge year and play enough to score close to 15 points per game with five or six rebounds to go along.

2. Michael Carter-Williams – With NBA-caliber length and leaping ability to match, there’s a lot to get excited about when it comes to Carter-Williams, but I have to pump the breaks a little and ask just how much of that optimism is due to his limited exposure last season. In other words, am I excited about Carter-Williams just because the shine hasn’t worn off yet? I’ll be the first to admit that that’s part of it, but after looking again at the way he played once he got some burn, you can see why so many are pumped at the idea of him holding the keys. He has the playmaking ability that makes scouts drool and pretty good handles to keep defenses honest. There’s so much to like about Carter-Williams that it’s easy to forget that he didn’t play a single minute in any of SU’s four NCAA Tournament games, so how he’ll respond to bigger challenges could be the biggest question he faces as a regular. He has the ability to be special, but will he thrive in the spotlight?

3. Brandon Triche – Don’t worry, he wasn’t going to drop that far. I won’t spend too much time talking about Triche because I devoted an entire post to him just last week and nothing’s changed since then, so I’ll sum up the key points. SU’s point guard has the shooting ability that keeps opposing coaches up at night, but can he put it all together? While he’s started every game he’s played, he’s also been held back by inconsistency and nagging injuries. Last season, Triche had a good first half, but averaged less than eight points per game over the team’s final 14 games, and that includes good efforts in the team’s last two Tournament games. Yes, the Orange had other playmakers, but I’m nonetheless skeptical that Triche will be the scorer many are hoping him to be through the course of the entire season. I don’t think it’s as important for him to become a steady 15 PPG scorer as others think, but it’s going to take a lot of convincing for me to rank him among the nation’s best.

4. Dajuan Coleman – Historically, the Big East is not kind to freshman big men, but Coleman could be the exception that bucks the trend. While Jon Rothstein’s recent comment comparing Coleman to Jared Sullinger sound outlandish to me, another comparison sounded more rational: DeJuan Blair. Physically, Coleman has a little more baby fat, but it’s not that difficult to see Coleman gobble rebounds and own the paint defensively the way Blair did as a freshman while showing enough offensively to get into double figures with his soft hands and shooting touch. The freshman has reportedly shed some pounds, but whether it’ll be enough to get up and down the court at the rate Jim Boeheim wants is yet to be determined, and that will be a major factor when it comes to staying fresh.

5. James Southerland – Let’s get one thing out of the way: I fully acknowledge that I may be crazy putting a freshman big over a senior wing on a list like this, but hear me out. I alluded to this earlier, but it seems like Fair and Southerland’s destinies are tied to one another. They play the same position, they’re almost identically sized and are two of the most experienced players on the team. Southerland was more efficient offensively, but didn’t play as much and didn’t show the level of consistency Fair displayed. The simple truth is that there won’t be room for both to play 25 minutes a game. Southerland’s biggest asset is the flexibility he gives Jim Boeheim to mix and match lineups. The Orange can use Southerland to give Fair a breather, but Boeheim can also go small, playing Fair and Southerland together and using Dajuan Coleman or Rakeem Christmas as the center. Still, there’s real value in being a prominent sixth man with the potential to play starter’s minutes. Just ask Dion Waiters. Southerland’s not going to show up on any mock draft boards, but at the end of the season, I think we’ll look back on a handful of games where his play gave the Orange the boost they needed to get a win.

6. Rakeem Christmas – I go back and forth, but among the preseason narratives, I’m most intrigued by the new and improved Christmas. Twenty more pounds of muscle and a little bit of confidence after being humbled so many times last season could be all Christmas needs to have a big year on both ends of the court. The forwards and centers in the Big East are always an intimidating bunch, but they seem to be an especially skilled group coming into this season. Gorgui Dieng, Steven Adams, Chris Otule, Davante Gardner, Mouphtaou Yarou, JayVaughn Pinkston and Otto Porter can all cause problems if the opposition isn’t prepared, and that’s the biggest question for Christmas after he looked lost so often that Boeheim pulled him from the starting lineup. Another one will be if Christmas has developed any semblance of a post game. He may not have to in order for SU to reach its potential, but a stronger pulse on offense could go a long way.

SU Strengthens Back Line With Addition Of Obokoh

October 15, 2012 1 comment

While it’s safe to say that Jim Boeheim has earned the trust and faith of Syracuse fans when it comes to recruiting, it’s also true that in mid-October, SU sat with just one commit from the vaunted class of 2013 with several scholarships available. Though the team had (and continues to have) several irons in the fire, it was a bit too quiet on the recruiting front as premiere prospects popped left and right for top programs across the country. Fortunately, after missing on Wayne Selden Monday afternoon, some positive news emerged that night with the announcement that Chinonso Obokoh, a 6’10 center from Rochester by way of Nigeria, had verbally committed to the Orange.

Obokoh’s addition immediately adds depth to what is already a very talented back line. Assuming no defections, the Orange will enter the 2013-14 season with five players 6’8″ or taller, and that’s if the coaching staff decides they’re comfortable with their front line and move on to other priorities. Time will tell if that’s the case, but as it is, SU has a stout group with the potential to be absolute hell for ACC offenses and that very few, if any opponents can match.

At 220 pounds, Obokoh figures to play a defense-first role similar to Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita, with one noteworthy difference being that Obokoh has shown the ability to guard well out to the perimeter. If Obokoh sticks at center, that skill may not be required in a zone defense like Syracuse’s, but mobility in a big man is always a nice thing to have. Offensively, he has a ways to go, but with scorers  expected to be littered elsewhere throughout the roster, it’s hard to be too concerned with his scoring limitations at this point.

Obokoh’s commitment also gives credence to a couple of the Orange’s more overlooked recruiting assets, the team’s elite camp and Midnight Madness, both of which Obokoh attended.  We all know SU’s recruiting cache is led by its Hall of Fame coach, conference, history, high-capacity venue and strong academic programs, but it can be easy to forget about the team’s ancillary tools, but in reading the tea leaves, the elite camp and Midnight Madness played significant roles in Obokoh’s decision-making process. After his weekend on the Hill, he reportedly canceled a visit to Texas, which annually lures in top-tier high school talent, and phone calls to Jim Boeheim and Mike Hopkins with the good news followed.

On the fringes, Obokoh’s verbal may also affect the outlook of his Bishop Kearney teammate and fellow center Thomas Bryant. Bryant, a sophomore, attended Syracuse’s elite camp and Midnight Madness with Obokoh and the Orange is prominently listed among his suitors. While Bryant may still be a couple years away from deciding where he’s headed, the short-term future continues to shape up very well for the ‘Cuse, even if it hasn’t moved at the pace that some fans would like.

Will Brandon Triche Answer The Bell?

October 4, 2012 Leave a comment

One of if not the biggest storyline coming into the 2012-13 season is whether Brandon Triche will come alive and lead the Orange to a deep tournament run. Now if you follow the team, you probably don’t need me to name the reasons why, but for clarity’s sake, it’s a mix of a few things. He’s started every game he’s played. He’s one of just two scholarship seniors. He’s a local guy. He didn’t put up a fuss (at least not publicly) when he was asked to switch positions. He has excellent vision. When he’s on, he’s one of the best shooters in the conference and can read a passing lane with the best of them. The only way he could be under more pressure is if he was a can’t-miss NBA prospect. There’s a ton to like about Triche.

The other thing about being such a mainstay in the lineup for his first three seasons, though, is that the exposure has given fans and media ample opportunity to pick at some of his perceived shortcomings – he’s too stoic, too streaky, he’s had nagging injuries, he’s not aggressive or vocal enough. As fans, many of us run hot and cold on this team and have seen what happens when expectations are heaped on rising seniors adjusting to more prominent roles.

Don’t get me wrong; there have been some excellent senior campaigns over the years, but for every Rick Jackson, it seems like there have been two or three Kris Josephs. The counterargument is that most anyone who was good enough to have that kind of year as a senior left for the NBA before the opportunity presented itself, and that’s certainly part of it, but it’s Triche’s cross to bear as the season draws closer. On roughly 342 occasions, we’ve seen him have an excellent game and wonder aloud if he’s turned the corner only to see him fade back into the background three days later as quickly as he broke out of it. Granted, I don’t think fan and media expectations play a huge role in a given player’s success, but I’m not completely ignoring it, either. Faced with a more prominent role, everyone is wondering if Brandon Triche will be the leader he wants to be.

The attention surrounding Triche comes from expecting more all around, but a lot of the talk hinges on him being needed to score, and I’m not completely sure I agree with that. As I mentioned in my post earlier this week, one of the great things about this team is that it will have tremendous depth, especially in the shooting department. Triche, Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. Fair and James Southerland can all put points on the board in a hurry and it’s also the calling card of Trevor Cooney.

Triche hasn’t scored more than 11 points per game in a season (his sophomore year), though I think that’s more a product of having scorers everywhere around him to this point than it is a knock on his lack of aggression. Usually when I think of big scorers who lead the team, I think of guys who average 15 or more a game consistently. In fact, only twice in the last 11 seasons has the Orange’s leading scorer failed to crack that threshold, though on the flip side, those two occasions came in the previous two seasons.

While I believe Triche is definitely capable of putting up those kinds of numbers, I don’t think it will be a necessity. The accuracy of the other players I named in this paragraph will go a long way towards determining whether Triche will have to put up 15+ for the team to be successful. I’m hoping that’s not the case, but leadership can be measured in other ways.

If Triche can average somewhere between 12 and 15 points on a nightly basis and dish out a few assists when Michael Carter-Williams catches a breather, all will be well. However, if he continues to hover between 7 and 11 points as the team’s most experienced player and is held back by injuries and inconsistency, it’s going to make the mountain that much steeper and put a little more stress on the Southerlands and Cooneys of the team.

Who Will Determine The Fate Of SU’s Season?

October 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I don’t know about you, but it feels like an eternity since SU’s season came to a close in Boston with an Elite Eight loss to Ohio State. This summer, thankfully, the team was spared from some of the off-court drama that drew a ton of unwanted attention to the program that started even before the Bernie Fine fiasco came along. Still, I’m more than ready for the real thing. I’ve said before that what has me most amped is that nearly everyone on the team will be adjusting to new roles. With three starters and the nation’s best sixth man having moved on, the most intriguing players in my mind will be those who showed flashes of greatness in limited or reserve roles in 2011-12 but figure to see more time this season.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, most of SU’s rotation will carry more weight than they did last season. While that may cause some uneasiness as far as public perception goes, it’s something we’ve seen coming since March. Fab Melo and Dion Waiters’ early departures surprised no one, and part of why the performance of C.J. Fair, James Southerland, Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams was so important last season was because all were logically forecasted to have bigger responsibilities as the roster turned over, and now that time is here. While SU lost a lot this summer in personnel, all of it was anticipated; the team isn’t dealing with a challenge similar to Louisville, who has to find a way to make up for Mike Marra’s season-ending ACL tear two weeks before the official start of practice. Neither are the Orange scrambling to find production to fill the void of players lost to dismissals or late transfers like what’s gone on in the Pac-12 as of late. Sure, SU is never exempt from the possibility of similar scenarios, but it’s just a reminder that no matter how much you sweat what Dajuan Coleman will do as a freshman or whether Brandon Triche will consistently score 12-15 points a game, things could be much worse as Midnight Madness draws close.

If pressed, I’d say the microscope will hover over Michael Carter-Williams more than any other player this season, and I say that for two main reasons. Mostly, he’s a sophomore filling the shoes of a fan favorite in Scoop Jardine. Despite some of Syracuse’s best seasons from guards in recent memory having come from sophomores (I’m thinking specifically of Jonny Flynn’s 2008-09 campaign and the season we just witnessed from Dion Waiters), it’s also true that Carter-Williams scored more than ten points in a game last season just once and didn’t see the court in 7 of the team’s last 11 games. SU fans, myself included, remain very excited and hopeful about MCDubz holding the keys, but I also think a lot of that stems from the fact that he’s still so inexperienced that the shine hasn’t had a chance to wear off.

The other reason why I believe Carter-Williams will face a good deal of scrutiny is because the Orange don’t have much else to turn to if Carter-Williams struggles. Brandon Triche has experience at the point guard spot and will see time there again this season when Carter-Williams catches a breather, but the offense flows much smoother when he thrives as a shooting guard and doesn’t have to worry about facilitating.

Elsewhere, C.J. Fair and James Southerland will battle for minutes at the wing, but both should see plenty of time unless one of the two just runs away with it, which I don’t see happening – at least not early on. Those of you who read me often and follow me on Twitter know that I’ve been honking Fair’s horn for awhile. I haven’t changed my tune, but I think he’ll have some great competition in Southerland. I do see Fair having the inside track due to his versatility, awareness, rebounding ability and overall consistency, his late-season slump last year notwithstanding, but at the same time, there’s plenty of reason to be excited about Southerland, who posted a higher offensive rating than everyone else on the team last season – yes, including Dion Waiters. While I like Fair to get more playing time, I’d be very surprised if Southerland doesn’t play a significant role in the rotation. Depth is a wonderful, wonderful thing and Jim Boeheim should be able to bend each player’s role as the matchups dictate.

Finally, we come to Rakeem Christmas, who will likely start at the other wing and may see some spot minutes at center. He’s probably the toughest nut to crack because he looked so lost at times last season, but other times, it seemed like everything slowed down for him and you’d see some terrific efforts like his fantastic nine-rebound, three-block night in front of a racous crowd in Cincinnati. Of course, he had a great defensive game against Kansas State in the postseason, but critics will point to the last-minute suspension of Jamar Samuels that gave Christmas the upper hand going in. While that may be true, that performance gave us something we didn’t see very often – an opportunity to see what Christmas is capable of doing when he doesn’t struggle early and isn’t pressed to avoid mistakes that land him on the bench before the first TV timeout. He may again have a short leash with Baye Keita and Jerami Grant available, but if Christmas gained some confidence to go along with the muscle he added over the summer, things could get really exciting in the paint.

I haven’t even gotten to the hype surrounding Dajuan Coleman, Jerami Grant and Trevor Cooney, or even Brandon Triche’s eagerness to be the senior leader, which shows just how fun the new-look Orange should be to follow this season. However, you’re sorely mistaken if you don’t think I’ll circle back around to discuss them before the action tips. Just 31 more days!