Expect the unexpected from Syracuse

The dog days of August are a beautiful time to be a sports fan. There’s a lot of hope and promise on the horizon with baseball entering the home stretch, college and professional football kicking off, and of course, basketball camps opening up. It’s that time of year when anything and everything seems possible in the sporting universe.

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This is also the time of year when I usually start envisioning how the Syracuse Orange is going to take shape on the basketball court. In years past, I had enough data and insight to accurately predict how things would play out, both stylistically and strategically. This year, however, I’d be lying if I said I had even a clue.

Looking at the roster I see nine rotation players and seven potential starters. The likely starting five is senior Brandon Triche and sophomore Michael Carter-Williams as guards, junior C.J. Fair and sophomore Rakeem Christmas as forwards, and freshman DaJaun Coleman as center. This doesn’t mean I’m convinced these five will be out there during the opening tip once Big East play begins.

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Junior Baye Keita and senior James Southerland both figure to play prominent minutes, especially Southerland, who has to be the frontrunner to lead the Orange in scoring this season. He will likely be the sparkplug off the bench for the Orange, but if he is consistently knocking down his jumper, it’ll be hard to keep him out of the starting five for long. If Coleman or Christmas struggle on the offensive end, Keita is a proven defender and rebounder, who coach Jim Boeheim could easily insert into the starting lineup for a stronger defensive unit.

The last two rotation players are still a mystery. Redshirt freshman Trevor Cooney is supposedly a knock-down shooter, whose talents all of the coaches and scouts are very high on, even though we’ve yet to see him in action during a high-stakes NCAA game. And freshman Jerami Grant, who won a gold medal with the Under-18 USA team in the FIBA Americas Championships in June, looked good in international play but may have a hard time getting meaningful minutes—barring an injury to another key player.

So, let’s dial it back for a minute. Three guards—none of whom I’d classify as a true point guard, four low-post bigs and two combo wings comprise this year’s squad. I know Boeheim will have lots of depth and balance again this season, certainly a positive entering the season, but I don’t know what our best lineup is going to be.

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One potential grouping that intrigues me on the defensive end would feature Triche, Southerland, Fair, Christmas and Coleman. That’s a team that would wreak havoc on both ends of the floor. Southerland at the top of the zone with Triche would make entry passes a tall order for any guard. Even if an opposing offense were able to feed the ball down low, Fair at a long 6’8 would be the shortest of the three bottom defenders of the zone. A lineup that big and agile would make scoring an absolute chore on every possession.

Heading down the court on the offensive end, assuming Triche has worked on his ball-handling, that particular squad features a lot of options: Fair slashing, Southerland spotting up, and Christmas and Coleman down low. But the cons of that lineup, specifically Triche as the only ball-handler and a triple dose of inside players clogging the lane, might prove to be too chaotic to materialize into anything that can be sustained for long stretches of the game.

On the other hand, Carter-Williams with Cooney, Southerland, Fair, and one of the three bigs, would certainly pack a potent offensive punch but would lack defensive intimidation. In the physical landscape of the Big East, that small ball line-up would be fun but would probably be overpowered.

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In fact, almost any lineup Boeheim goes with will likely have a deficiency that could be remedied with a player off the bench, but that substitution will lead to yet another deficiency. It’s a conundrum I really don’t remember having over the past few seasons. This could lead more adjustments on the fly, based on the matchup—something we haven’t seen from Boeheim in a long time.

The lack of a “go-to” lineup from the onset of the season is one hurdle I know Boeheim will attempt to overcome in the preseason. He may even need some early season games to figure it out as well, but there is enough depth and talent on this year’s team to find a groove. Until then, I’ll continue to try to visualize what might play out when the games begin. In the meantime, I’m excited that for the first time in years I’ll be surprised by what I see when they do.

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Matt Goodman

About Matt Goodman

Matt worked for the Westchester Journal News, covering a variety of sports. He has also covered Syracuse University basketball from 2003-05 in both online and print. Matt graduated from Syracuse University in 2004 and currently resides in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @mattgoodman44.
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