While Syracuse may be returning most of its core players this season, the one exception is Rick Jackson.
The forward was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 13.1 points and 10.3 rebounds, and was SU’s most consistent player throughout the year. Although the Orange has plenty of talent across the board, Jackson’s role may be a difficult one to fill.
“It’s up to the guys that are going to be in there now to pick up that responsibility that Ricky was so consistent with last year,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said during basketball media day on Friday. “We think we have enough guys with experience to be able to do that. Ricky played most of the time over his career at center, and we think we have guys in that position who can do the things that need to be done for us to be successful.”
Specifically, Boeheim is referring to Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita, both of whom played extensive minutes last year as freshmen. The Orange will also have freshman Rakeem Christmas to help out.
Melo came in as a highly touted recruit, and was named the No. 1 center prospect in his class. But Melo struggled mightily in his first season, averaging just 2.4 points and 1.9 rebounds.
Still, Melo showed flashes of realizing his potential, especially toward the end of the season. He scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds in SU’s season finale against DePaul.
In the opening round of the Big East Tournament, Melo’s 12 points and four rebounds helped the Orange earn a 79-73 win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.
“The expectations people had for me, I thought it would be easier,” Melo said. “I thought I would go there and play and average 20 points a game, something like that. People realized that it’s not like that. I know I had to learn a lot. It was hard for me to deal with that, the expectations people had for me. Now, I’m more mature and it will be better.”
Unlike Melo, Keita came in last year under the radar with few expectations. Yet, by midseason, Keita was promoted to the starting lineup.
His most memorable game came against eventual NCAA champion Connecticut in Storrs. Keita dominated the post, grabbing 11 rebounds to go along with six steals and two blocks (and four points) in a 66-58 win.
Although he was slowed by a hand injury toward the end of last year, Keita was still more polished than most expected him to be. He finished the season averaging 2.3 points and 3.9 rebounds.
“I learned a lot last year,” he said. “I didn’t have any experience going into the Big East last season. This season I know what to expect.”
Both Melo and Keita have a season under their belt, and both know the grinding season that awaits them.
The Orange is confident the two can ease fears about the loss of Jackson.
“Obviously Ricky Jackson is the biggest hole that we have to replace, and that’s where the two big guys come in,” Boeheim said. “They have to step up and do what Ricky did for us last year.”