After one of the best seasons in school history fell short of the Final Four, Syracuse fans have been left to speculate on what the cards hold for next year. Unfortunately, the team will probably be worse.
Regardless of whether the Orange manage to land top-ranked recruit Nerlens Noel, it will be difficult for next year’s team to maintain the torrid pace set by this year’s squad.
I say this not because I lack faith in Trevor Cooney’s ability to fill the hole at guard or in Rakeem Christmas’s potential to make a leap forward as a sophomore. I say it because it’s hard to go an entire regular season losing just one game, no matter who is on your team.
We will likely say that the Big East has gotten tougher or lament the team’s lack of a slasher like Dion Waiters or Kris Joseph. But part of next year’s downturn will simply be regression to the mean, and even teams like Kentucky are not immune to statistics.
As a fan, this should set your expectations for next season. But do not despair. Even if next year’s Syracuse team is less talented than this year’s, it does not mean it cannot go farther. For proof, just look at Kansas, which made the championship game this year with far worse players than the Jayhawks who lost in last year’s Elite Eight.
So what should you expect? Many prognosticators will focus on incoming players, such as McDonald’s All-American Dajaun Coleman, when evaluating the team’s chances, but it will be the improvement of the players already on SU’s roster that determines its fate in the 2013 NCAA tournament. Most important of all will be the development of SU’s other two McDonald’s All-Americans: Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams.
Fortunately, in recent years, Syracuse players have made great strides from their freshman to their sophomore campaigns. Rick Jackson, whose numbers as a freshman (12.9 mpg, 3.7ppg, 3.0 rpg) are eerily similar to Christmas’s (11.5 mpg, 2.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg), saw his numbers basically double to 22 mpg, 8.3ppg and 5.8 rpg as a sophomore.
In limited action this past year, Carter-Williams displayed great potential as the leader of the offense, with a 33.6 assist percentage and 3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. His turnovers are likely to rise as he handles the ball in more challenging situations, but if he is able to maintain anything close to these numbers, he will be the most efficient point guard Syracuse has had in recent memory.
Carter-Williams will need to improve his outside shooting, which looked much worse than his 38.9 percent 3-point percentage suggested, but he will drive to the basket more than he shoots. His large first step will allow him to get inside the lane where he can use his size to find open shooters or show off the skills that made him a prolific scorer in high school.
Joining Carter-Williams in the starting backcourt will be senior Brandon Triche at the two. CJ Fair will retain the starting spot he took over in the Big East tournament, except he will slide over to small forward to allow the bigger Christmas to play the four.
The center will certainly be Noel, if Syracuse is able to land the highly coveted recruit. But if he decides to follow in Anthony Davis’s steps at Kentucky, Coleman will instead anchor the middle, as he is too large and slow to play the wing in the zone.
The first man off the bench will be James Southerland, who will look to follow in the footsteps of recent successful sixth men Waiters, Joseph and Scoop Jardine. His entrance will probably mean a quick hook for Coleman – especially if his conditioning is an issue – allowing Christmas to move to the center spot where he excelled this past year.
Red-shirt freshman Trevor Cooney will spell the guards and provide consistent outside shooting that Syracuse hasn’t seen since the days of Andy Rautins. Incoming freshman Jerami Grant will likely play a Carter-Williams-esque role, as he has plenty of talent but too many players in front of him in the rotation. Baye Keita will continue to provide energy off the bench and play limited minutes at center barring emergency.
All in all, the 2012-2013 Orange have the potential to win a National Title. It may not be as talented as this year’s team, or even the 2009-2010 squad, but if the players can bring home a trophy, you won’t hear that mentioned ever again.