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Who Will Determine The Fate Of SU’s Season?

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!

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