Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Syracuse basketball preview: Those aren't boos, they're saying ... oh wait, those are boos

“…with Scoop as the primary ball-handler, Syracuse cannot win the Big East tournament and cannot compete for a national championship.”
That’s a line from my final Syracuse basketball column in my previous life as a sports writer. It was written on March 23, 2011.
Unfortunately, seven-plus months later, my opinion of Scoop Jardine and of Syracuse’s chances this 2011-12 season haven’t changed.
Expectations for the Orange are as high as I’ve ever seen them -- a legitimate run at a national title is possible, and maybe expected.
And the pressure is deserved. Syracuse returns four starters from a 27-win team and has one of the best freshman classes in the nation.
The Orange may not be the best team overall, but they’re the deepest. And that’s something that will be highly beneficial in the rough-and-tumble Big East.
But Syracuse still has Scoop.
And that’s why I’m less-than optimistic about the season.
Look, I’d love to come on this blog in late March and eat a heaping plate of crow after Scoop guided the Orange to a national championship. I’d be thrilled to be proven wrong by the fifth-year senior.
I want him to play smart. I want him to be a facilitator, not a gunner. Mostly, I want him to stay away from “Hero Mode.”
But I don’t see it happening. He’s just burned us too many times.
Still, my cynical mindset has not diluted my excitement for the season. Syracuse is in the spotlight, and while I don’t foresee Jim Boeheim cutting down any nets come March, I think the Orange can be successful. And most importantly, I think they’re going to be fun to watch.
There’s a ton of fascinating storylines:
- Will Kris Joseph, clearly one of the most athletic players in the country, finally stop playing soft and vault to “elite” status?
- Will Fab Melo rebound from a dreadful freshman campaign and be a force in the paint?
- Will Dion Waiters’ innate scoring ability make up for his inevitable meltdown (I’m guessing that he and Jimmy B aren’t exactly Facebook friends)
- Will Brandon Triche develop some sort of mean streak? (Seriously, I’m not sure he has a pulse. He just might be a vampire)
- Will C.J. Fair continue his evolution as a taller Josh Pace?
- Will Boeheim find minutes for talented freshmen Michael Carter-Williams and Trevor Cooney?
- Will Rakeem Christmas, Melo and Baye Moussa Keita successfully fill the hole left behind by Rick Jackson?

My answers to the previous questions: No, Yes, Possibly, Hell no, Hell yes, He better and Nobody replaces “The Deer.”
There are several keys to this season, and one big one is how Boeheim will successfully navigate this team’s depth. It sure is a good problem to have.
I will tell you one thing -- MCW is too good not to get big-time minutes, and Waiters is too much of an offensive spark to keep him on the pine.
This puts major pressure on Scoop and Triche, I think justifiably. The veterans have had their chances over the years and they’ve played well at times. But they have lacked consistency.
So if either of the starters struggle, Boeheim shouldn’t be hesitant to pull the trigger and insert either MCW or Dion.
As for Joseph, I don’t see him ever developing into a Wes Johnson-like player. He’s not cut out for physical basketball. (If only he’d come along in a few years, he’d be perfect for the ACC)
Joseph will get you 14 points and 5 boards per game, but that’s just not good enough for someone with his skill set.
He’s visually much bulkier this year, so hopefully he’ll be ready and willing to take more hits and accept more contact when driving to the hoop. But much like my feelings toward Scoop, I’m not so confident.
Fair is a stud and was the surprise of the season a year ago. And it even looks like he’s developed a halfway decent 3-point shot, which would make him nearly unguardable.
As for Christmas, I don’t think Syracuse needs much out of him beyond rebounding and defense. In fact, the Orange roster is so littered with scorers, the big men -- Christmas, Keita and Melo -- really don’t have to do much scoring. As long as they crash the boards and defend the interior, they’ll be doing their job.
Melo has shown a nice touch, especially on those 15- to 17-footers in the exhibition games, but I’m not sure Boeheim wants him falling in love with that shot just yet.
I love this roster, and I love their chances. Syracuse is without a doubt a top-five team -- I’d love to see a showdown with either North Carolina or Duke this year. I really think the Orange will be a match-up nightmare with anybody.
And talent will get them far enough.
But it won’t get them to New Orleans.
Unless Scoop and Joseph become totally different players -- meaning Scoop has a brain transfusion and Joseph grows a pair -- Syracuse will remain a great team that sees its season come to an end earlier than it should.
Hopefully, they’ll make up for it with some really entertaining basketball.