Syracuse basketball 2011-12 preview: Orange has depth, talent

In Jim Boeheim’s previous 35 seasons as the head coach at Syracuse University, he has undoubtedly had many talented rosters with which to work.

The 2011-2012 team is one of them.

While one starter is gone from last season’s team that went 27-8 and was bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, every other player who played consequential minutes returns. That core is joined by three new recruits, including two McDonald’s All-Americans.

The one departed starter is a major one, however, as Rick Jackson averaged a double-double last season and was named the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year. His absence creates a sizeable hole in the frontcourt for the Orange, as the team failed to get consistent play from its other big men.

The backcourt returns intact, as Scoop Jardine returns with backcourt mate Brandon Triche. Both guards started every game last season, averaged double digits in scoring, and made over 50 3s apiece. Jardine was also named to the All-Big East Second Team prior to the season.

Kris Joseph returns to the small forward spot after leading the team in scoring last season, then undergoing knee surgery in the offseason. Even more is expected from Joseph in his final season in orange, as he was named to the conference’s first team.

Fab Melo and Baye Keita return to share time at center. Both should have improved sophomore seasons, but for different reasons. Melo has lost 30 pounds since enrolling at Syracuse and literally looks like a different person while Keita had wrist surgery after last season and has a clean bill of health.

Those two will be joined in the post by Rakeem Christmas, a defensive specialist freshman whose rebounding and shotblocking skills are currently more advanced than his offensive skills.

Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair will likely be the first two players off the bench. Waiters will reprise his third guard role while Fair will provide support in the frontcourt and add a stronger perimeter shot than what he displayed as a freshman.

While it is a deep group, the questions hovering over the squad is who will take and make the big shots needed in close games and which, if any, of the big men will rise to the occasion. There was no go-to guy who demanded the ball in last season’s tight contests and there is no one who fills that slot this season.

The post men are young and either failed to impress last season or are inexperienced. These two traps lie in wait for the Orange this season.

PRESEASON PREDICTIONS AND AWARDS

* Big East Coaches’ Poll – Syracuse tied for first with Connecticut

* AP Poll – pre-season ranked #5

* ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ Poll – pre-season ranked #5

* John Wooden Award Preseason Watch List – Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph

WHO’S BACK

* Scoop Jardine (redshirt sr. 6’1” guard) – As a first-time starter, Jardine tallied double-figures in points 24 times, including topping 20 points in seven games. He also led the Big East in assists in conference play, averaging 6.1 per game, including a personal-best 13 against Marquette.

* Mookie Jones (redshirt jr. 6’6” forward) – For the second straight season, Jones made over 40 percent of his 3-pointers on the season in limited playing time, burying 41.9 percent of his attempts last season.

* Kris Joseph (sr. 6’7” forward) – Joseph was voted to the All-Big East Third Team last season after averaging 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. He showed marked improvement in his 3-point shooting last year, making 36.6 percent of 123 attempts after connecting on only 23.9 percent of 67 tries in his first two seasons.

* James Southerland – (jr. 6’8” guard) – Southerland reprised his role as a deep threat, taking over 56 percent of his field goal attempts from behind the arc and connecting on just under 37 percent of them, including burying four against Morgan State.

* Brandon Triche – (jr. 6’4” guard) – During his sophomore season, Triche improved his numbers greatly during Big East play, lifting his scoring from 9.5 points per game to 12.7 during conference action. He also became SU’s most reliable free throw shooter, improving his success rate from 63.4 percent to 84.2 percent, including a school record of 37 consecutive free throws made.

* Fabricio de Melo – (so. 7’0” center) – Melo had a disappointing freshman season, but still started 24 games and closed the season by cracking double figures in scoring in the regular season finale and the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. Melo has lost significant weight and improved his conditioning with the hope of having a better sophomore season.

* C.J. Fair – (so. 6’8“ forward) – Fair posted double figures in scoring nine times in his freshman season, including six times in Big East play and tallying 14 points and seven rebounds in the Orange’s NCAA Tournament first round victory. He also finished second on the team in offensive rebounds (50).

* Baye Keita – (so. 6‘10” forward-center) – Keita struggled through a wrist injury for a large portion of the season, but averaged 3.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in Big East action. The native of Senegal had surgery on his wrist during the offseason and has a clean bill of health.

* Dion Waiters – (so. 6’ 3” guard) – Waiters provided instant offense from the third guard spot, averaging 6.6 points per game in just over 16 minutes per appearance and figures to fill the same role again as a sophomore. Had a team-best 18 points in the team’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Marquette.

WHO’S NEW

* Michael Carter-Williams – (fr. 6’5” guard) – A McDonald’s All-American as a high school senior, Carter-Williams scored 2,260 points in three years at St. Andrews School. He was ranked in the top 35 nationally by three recruiting services.

* Rakeem Christmas – (fr. 6’9” forward) – The second McDonald’s All-American to enroll at Syracuse this year, Christmas was named a top 30 recruit by three recruiting services. He just missed averaging a double-double as a senior in high school, as well as registering just under four blocked shots per game.

* Trevor Cooney – (fr. 6’4” guard) – Cooney averaged 8.8 points per game while competing on the 2010 USA Men’s Under-18 team. He spent five years playing high school varsity basketball after making the team as an eighth grader, including winning two state titles and being a runner-up a third year.

LEADING RETURNERS

POINTS:  Joseph – 14.3/game, Jardine – 12.5/game, Triche – 11.1/game

ASSISTS: Jardine – 5.8/game

REBOUNDS: Joseph – 5.2/game

3-POINTERS: Jardine – 56, Triche – 50, Joseph – 45

FG%: Fair – 54.3%

FT%: Triche – 84.2%

BLOCKED SHOTS: Keita – 1.2/game

STEALS: Jardine – 1.6/game, Joseph – 1.5/game

SCHEDULE ANALYSIS

As is the norm for the Orange, the non-conference slate is predominantly home games with one marquee non-conference matchup and a pre-season tournament. That marquee tilt is the matchup with Florida in the Big East/SEC challenge, as the Gators enter the season ranked in the top ten in both polls. The pre-season tournament is a little lighter task than in some years as no team other than the Orange in the NIT Season Tipoff Tournament is ranked.

As usual, the conference slate is tough, as two of the three teams Syracuse faces twice (Connecticut and Louisville) are expected to contend for the Big East title. Those same two squads are also in the preseason top ten with Pittsburgh on their heels. Cincinnati and Marquette also are ranked to start the season, so the conference is filled with quality teams, as usual.

OUTLOOK

While the loss of Rick Jackson is a big one (he finished fifth in SU history in field goal percentage, seventh in blocked shots, and eighth in rebounds), the returning eight players in the rotation all saw fairly significant minutes (at least 9.9 per game).

They are also a talented group, as seven of them also scored at least a dozen points in a game last year. The backcourt group is a strength, as Jardine, Triche, and Waiters combined to score over 1,000 points least season. Joseph has the talent to be the Big East’s Player of the Year.

A lot will depend on the improvement of Melo and Keita, as they need to provide defense and rebounding down low. Fair showed wisdom beyond his years as a freshman and his ability to sneak through defenses for cheap buckets is his greatest strength.

Jim Boeheim enters his 36th season at the helm fifth in Division I wins with 856 in his career. With 24 wins, he will pass a pair of coaching legends, Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith. With a team widely predicted to get to the Elite Eight and possibly farther, those two dozen wins seem like a very tangible goal.

The question is if Boeheim can coax a result that matches those high expectations out of this talented group. His last two Final Four teams (1995-1996 and 2002-2003) were both unranked at the beginning of the season, as was his 2009-2010 juggernaut that went 30-5 and peaked at No. 1 in the country in February.

If someone (Joseph?) can take a step forward as a reliable scorer in big moments, the length and experience of this team could carry the Orange to those high expectations and beyond.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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