There are tremendous expectations on the 2011-12 Syracuse basketball team.
Syracuse returns most of its core from last year’s team, and will begin the season ranked No. 5. They’re also expected to win a share of the Big East, according to the preseason coach’s poll.
“Coming off of a successful year and you have a lot of guys back your rankings going to be pretty good,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “As it should be.”
So the obvious question becomes, how does Syracuse deal with the pressure?
“Just continue to work hard and stay together as a unit,” senior guard Scoop Jardine said. “People are going to say things about us throughout the year. Mostly stay together and stay for each other – that’s how we can handle expectations.”
Rather than being negative, SU views the expectations as an aide.
“We know what we’re capable of and we know that those expectations, we can exceed them, if we all do the right things,” senior Kris Joseph said. “We all have to come together because everyone on this team plays an important role.”
Here is a breakdown of everyone on that team:
Not only does Syracuse have experience at the guard position, it also has depth, youth and talent.
Brandon Triche and Jardine started every game at the two guard spots last year, and return for their final run together.
Jardine took over as the team’s starting point guard last year and finished the season averaging 12.5 points and 5.9 assists per game. Triche, meanwhile, will be in the starting lineup for the third consecutive season coming off an 11.1 points per game campaign.
Between the two of them, they have more than 90 starts in their college careers.
“Experience is definitely the key thing, especially late in games and late in the season,” Triche said. “It is definitely going to be beneficial for us. Just to be able to teach the younger guys and help them speed up, will make us better off against other teams.”
One of the players that is already up to speed is sophomore Dion Waiters. Although Waiters went through the typical up-and-down year of a freshman, the Philadelphia native came on strong in the NCAA tournament, finishing with 18 points against Marquette in the last game of the season.
He will be competing for time against two of the newest players on the team, Trevor Cooney, and Michael Carter-Williams.
Cooney averaged 17.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists in his senior year, and and was named Delaware State Basketball Player of the Year. Carter-Williams, a McDonald’s High School All American, was also named Rhode Island Gatorade Player of the Year in his senior season.
Both have already started heeding lessons from their teammates.
“I’ve learned that I’m going to go through struggles and games where I’m going to be off,” Carter-Williams said. “I’m going to stay positive and learn from them every day. If I learn from them every day like they learned from their past teammates, I’m going to be successful.”
Junior Mookie Jones will also be in the mix for playing time.
The forward core is headlined by Joseph, who was named a preseason Blue Ribbon First Team All-American and to the preseason All Big East first team. The senior averaged a team-leading 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds last season, and spent the offseason adding a midrange pull-up to his game.
“Kids either shoot the 3-ball, or they go to the basket,” Joseph said. “A lot of the in between game is lost.”
It won’t be lost on Joseph.
“When he was off, the one thing that helped him is that he had a lot of time to work on his shooting mechanics,” Boeheim said. “I think that will pay off big dividends for him this year.”
The same holds true for sophomore C.J. Fair, who will play a lot of minutes at the other forward spot. The Baltimore native displayed a lethal midrange game last season, and will also feature a perimeter game this year.
“You will see me being aggressive when I have the ball outside,” Fair said. “Last year I kind of forced the issue a lot, driving and now I’ve been working on my jumper a lot this summer so you will see quite a few jumper attempts from me.”
The Orange hopes it can say the same for James Southerland.
The junior has unlimited range and tremendous athleticism, but hasn’t been able to put it together for large stretches at a time. Southerland was in and out of Boeheim’s rotation last season, but understands this year what will get him the most playing time.
“The more I crash (the boards), the better it will be for everybody else,” Southerland said. “Basically, I’m bringing a little bit of everything. Just a little more this year.”
Rick Jackson averaged a double-double last season for the Orange, while being named Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Jackson graduated last year, and the impact of losing him will be felt most on the center position.
The Orange are left with sophomores Fab Melo, Baye Moussa Keita and freshman Rakeem Christmas to fill the void.
Melo came into Syracuse as the country’s top rated center, but, like many freshmen who play in the Big East, struggled throughout his first year. Melo averaged just 2.4 points and 1.9 rebounds, but 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—who also played forward last year—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.”
The sophomore duo will also have help from Christmas, who, like Carter-Williams is a McDonald’s All American. Christmas averaged 13.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks a game, while helping Academy of the New Church to the Pennsylvania Independent School Athletic Association (PAISAA) State semifinals.
“Whatever Coach wants me to do I’ll do,” Christmas said. “I’m just coming in here to work hard.”
Syracuse starts this season as a top 5 team across most preseason polls, and there is a good reason why. With a legitimate go-to scorer and plenty of experience in the backcourt, the Orange has a chance to give Boeheim his fourth Final Four team in as many decades.