Hoops 2011-12: Who will step up at center?

In the first of a multi-part series, Micah Tannenbaum and Wesley Cheng will be discussing the 2011-12 Syracuse basketball team. In the first installment, Micah and Wesley discussed the future of Dion Waiters. In part two, the duo talk about the center situation for the 2011-12 season.

Wesley Cheng: Micah, earlier, we talked about how Syracuse having six guards and limited playing time was a good problem for Syracuse to have. Do you feel the same way about SU’s four centers?

Micah Tannenbaum: The center situation is going to be really interesting coming into the 2011-12 season. The team loses Rick Jackson who was forced to play center for most of the year due to the surprising lack of execution and development from Fab Melo. How will Melo respond in his sophomore campaign? Keita showed signs of improvement as a freshman, but was hampered by injury. DaShone Riley is coming off an injury of his own, so just how will he factor into the rotation?  And then we have the highly-touted freshman Rakeem Christmas.  There are more players at the guard position, but to me there are more unknown variables at center.

WC: I’ve never been sold on a big man coming in and making an immediate impact. Take a look at all of the SU centers in the past 10 years. Exactly zero of them have averaged more than five points a game in their freshman season. Craig Forth came the closest with 4.9 points a game. That being said, almost every Syracuse center has improved during his time at Syracuse. Onuaku and Jackson became dominant low post scorers. Watkins developed into an NBA prospect. This is the long way of saying that I think Christmas, despite all of the accolades coming in, won’t be an immediate contributor.

MT: Well, then Syracuse has a major hole in the low post.

WC: You have to figure that one of the four centers you just mentioned will developed into a solid low post option.

MT: Putting Christmas aside, are you comfortable with any of the three we discussed? Melo has a lot to prove. Keita is not a starter. And Riley hasn’t played competitively in over a year.

WC: I think Melo is going to be solid next year. He really showed some signs of life at the end of the season, especially in the Big East tournament against a formidable St. John’s team. If he hadn’t been injured early in the season, I don’t believe his freshman campaign would’ve gone as poorly as it did. The same goes for Keita. He played great against Connecticut on Feb. 2 with five points and 11 rebounds. He was basically playing the latter half of the season with one hand. With Melo and Keita having a full season under their belt, I do feel fairly confident that one if not both of them will help fill the void left by Jackson.

MT: I think the one thing we can definitely agree on is that these four players provide the zone with amazing size and length.

WC: And between them, there are 20 fouls to give. Going back to my earlier point, a guy like Arinze went from averaging 2.0 points and 2.8 rebounds to 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds between his freshman and sophomore year. Granted, he had a medical redshirt year in between, but it shows you how much someone can improve. So perhaps Riley, who averaged 1.4 points and 1.5 rebounds in his first year can take a step like that. I’m not saying he’s going to average a double-double, but the extra year may help him a lot.

MT: There is no question we will see development. Coach Fine has a tremendous record of developing big men.

WC: So where do you stand on this? Do you think any of the four will separate himself from the pack?

MT: I think the two that will see the most playing time are Melo and Christmas. Ultimately, Melo will separate himself. He’s already gone through the hardest part coming into the program with expectations that were clearly too high for him to meet.  He has the next few months to better condition himself and the experience of having gone through an entire season of Big East play.

WC: The other thing here is that Keita could also move to the four spot. He’s not locked into being a center. Right now, CJ Fair may replace Jackson in the lineup, leaving a small team out there. Keita could be that option that could give SU the option to play a bigger lineup.

MT: The same could be said for Christmas. Imagine the size and wingspan of a Joseph, Melo, and Christmas frontcourt. One thing is for sure, it certainly will not be easy for guards to drive and score around the basket on Syracuse next year. I’ll go out on a limb and say Syracuse will lead the Big East in blocked shots next year.

WC: Wow, Micah. Really making a stretch there!

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Wes Cheng

About Wes Cheng

Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.
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