Syracuse’s theme to the 2010-11 season may be unfinished business, but to get there, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim will need to preach another mantra: Inside-out.
The key to Syracuse’s success last season was a balanced offense that allowed Syracuse to shoot 51.6 percent from the field, and 39.1 percent from 3-point land while averaging a robust 80.9 points per game.
How did they do it? Working the ball down in the post and finding open shots for their shooters.
Of course, it won’t be as easy this season, or at the very least, the roles haven’t been as well defined. Last season, Boeheim had veterans Andy Rautins and Wes Johnson knocking down shots from the outside when opponents dared double down on Arize Onuaku in the post.
This season, all three have departed and left behind a myriad of questions of who will replace them.
Rautins’ departure may be the most glaring. While Rick Jackson has shown promise in developing a low post game, and Kris Joseph will assume the responsibility of being Syracuse’s driver and slasher from Johnson, Boeheim has a lot of unproven talent to assume Rautins’ former job as team’s sniper.
“I’m pretty comfortable with myself,” Boeheim said. “I can make some if I get open. But the rest is up in the air.”
All kidding aside, Syracuse does have some viable options.
Returning starter Brandon Triche (40 percent) and sixth man Scoop Jardine (39 percent) were reasonably proficient last year, but largely untested in key situations. Rautins and Johnson combined for 364 3-point attempts last year, with Jardine and Triche, the presumed starting backcourt of this year’s group took just 134.
“Everyone on our team can shoot threes – it’s if they can make them” Boeheim said. “Both Brandon and Scoop were pretty good three-point shooters last year, and I think they’ll be better this year.”
Joseph has potential as well (22 percent), although he has the most ground to make up.
“He made some threes last year,” Boeheim said. “He shot and made some in practice and really never translated that over to the game. I think he can be a good three-point shooter.”
Aside from the main returning players from last season, there are intriguing options further down on the bench.
For much of last season, Mookie Jones and James Southerland sat on the bench. Jones averaged just 10.5 minutes per game, and played even less come Big East time. Southerland appeared in just 13 games.
Now, with Johnson and Rautins gone, Jones and Southerland could assume larger roles.
“They both have great opportunities and they have to take advantage of them,” Boeheim said. “We lost two perimeter guys who played 35 minutes a game last year, so there is a large amount of playing time there.”
Jones created headlines last season against Cornell when he didn’t get into the game. Midway through the second half when it became apparent that Jones wasn’t getting into the game, Boeheim walked over to Jones and the two had a conversation, resulting in Jones leaving the bench, tossing his headband into the stands, and disappearing into the locker room.
Rumors swirled that Jones was going to quit the team and transfer. Nothing came of it, and in the next game, Jones scored 12 points against Columbia, hitting 4-of-5 from downtown, showing that he can certainly be the player to assume a large portion of Rautins’ role offensively.
“I’m working every day,” Jones said. “I’m gonna be at practice early working on my game. Trying to work on everything Coach says I need to improve on.”
If Boeheim can find his new Andy Rautins among this group, Syracuse figures to have a strong season.
“The three guys we lost produced more than the three guys we lost before them,” Boeheim said. So I think we’ve lost a little bit more this year than last year. But we certainly have enough good players to have a good basketball team. And we expect to be able to do that.”
Triche and Jardine will likely fill the two started positions, which leaves at least one other rotation spot for a guard.
Aside from Jones and Southerland, the Orange has also added Philadelphia native Dion Waiters, a 6-3 combo guard who played his final two seasons at Life Center Academy in Burlington, New Jersey.
Waiters is Jardine’s cousin and has been waiting to play in Syracuse since he committed to the Orange as a freshman in high school. He may not have to wait that long, as Waiters is already being mentioned as a player that can log major minutes right away.
Even if he finds himself out of the rotation, Waiters won’t lack for confidence.
“I can do it all. I can shoot, I can play defense, I can pass the ball,” Waiters said. “I have always been confident even growing up. I was always confident no matter what I did. I always want to be the best at what I do.”
Orange fans are most excited about Kris Joseph, who by all accounts will be the heir apparent to Johnson.
Joseph was the team’s third leading scorer last season at 10.8 points and averaged just under six rebounds a game off the bench, showing Orange fans what they could expect this year. Still, Boeheim urged caution when assessing Joseph’s ceiling.
“Last year was a perfect year for Kris. He came in and found his spots, with most of the defensive scrutiny on Wes, Andy and Arinze, he got an opportunity to do some things,” Boeheim said. “This year will be much more intense since defensive pressure will be on him.”
Joseph is more than willing to place the target on his back.
“I have to step into that role,” Joseph said. “My job is to give us production from the small forward spot, help my teammates on defense and on the boards and try to make us as successful as we were last year.”
While Joseph may be the star, Jackson will be the “in” to Syracuse’s inside-out game. Last season, Jackson showed improvement in the low post, developing a reliable jump hook that occasionally drew double teams. But Jackson’s low post presence will be as important as ever if Syracuse is to maintain balance in its offense.
“We have had a lot of success in the past because we had a lot of teamwork,” Jackson said. “The guys were not selfish. On any given night another guy could have a 20-point game. I think it is going to be that type of year again.”
C.J. Fair, a 6-8 forward from Baltimore, could also see playing time in a relatively thin front court.
With Onuaku out, Boeheim is left with an inexperienced group to take over at the pivot.
Before the season even started, Boeheim announced that last season’s backup center, Da’shonte Riley, will miss the season with foot surgery to repair a stress fracture on the 7-foot center’s right foot. Riley played sparing last season, but was pressed into duty when Onuaku had to sit out Syracuse’s last two games of the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s going to get his foot fixed, hopefully,” Boeheim said. “We’re really not positive how long that will be, but it could be the whole year.”
That leaves a clear path open for Syracuse’s prized recruit, 7-foot, 267-pound center Fab Melo, a native of Brazil who attended Sagemont High School in Florida, to be the Orange’s starting center.
“I am looking forward to it,” Melo said. “I cannot wait to start playing and show what I can do.”
He has already shown some of his Syracuse’s teammates.
“He’s got the personality, he’s got the charisma, all that,” Jardine said. “He’s going to be great for our zone, and he’s willing to learn, willing to get better every day.”
Also in the mix will be fellow freshmen Baye Moussa Keita, a 6-10 forward and native of Senegal who played for Oak Hill Academy (Va.), although he is looked at as a bigger project than Melo.
Even with the departure of Rautins, Johnson and Onuaku, Syracuse still returns four of its main rotation players from last season and has enough veteran presence to be a major contender in the Big East. If Melo is as good as advertised and Joseph can make the next step into being a superstar, Syracuse will have an opportunity to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
“We have a nucleus of guys who played big roles for us last year,” Boeheim said. “It’s a talented group. We’ll see what they do in the next couple weeks. We’ll see how they fit in. But it’s a good blend of veteran guys. You win in this league by having veteran guys, and we have some young guys who we think are really good.”
Wesley Cheng is the Editor in Chief for SuJuiceOnline.com.