Seven burning questions for Syracuse basketball

Syracuse guard Brandon Triche shoots against Louisville
Syracuse guard Brandon Triche shoots against Louisville

Consensus among experts and analysts seems to be that the 2012-2013 Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team has the potential to be great. But this year’s squad will be vastly different from last year’s team which won 34 games and made the Elite 8. Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph, and Fab Melo are gone, and their departure means Syracuse has lost nearly 58% of last season’s scoring and will be forced to replace almost 54% of their available minutes. So just how good will SU be? Well, questions abound…

1. Can Brandon Triche finally realize his potential?

Triche has started every game of his career, but spent his first three years looking over his shoulder at a better player sitting on Syracuse’s bench, just waiting to come in the moment he screwed up. As a freshman, Scoop typically spelled him in crucial moments and during his sophomore and junior campaigns, Waiters was more than happy to check-in during crunch time. And so for all his physical gifts—strength, speed, and solid shooting touch—Triche’s struggles with his confidence have contributed greatly to three mercurial seasons. Now as a senior, Triche is going to get plenty of burn, probably 30-35 minutes a night, and so the only thing stopping Brandon from becoming a dominant player (aside from needing to add a bit more arc to his jump shot), is Brandon.

Syracuse guard Brandon Triche shoots against Louisville
Can he realize his potential?

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2. Can Michael Carter-Williams run the offense?

As a Freshman, stuck behind three experienced guards, MCW played sporadically, but managed to impress in limited action. Long, quick, and athletic, he has the physical tools to start and immediately become the break-out star many writers and fans are predicting him to be. But shining in scrub time is vastly different than orchestrating an offense in prime time, something MCW will be asked to do on a nightly basis. Last year, with Waiters and Jardine and Joseph, Syracuse ran a number of high-ball screens or simply allowed the guards to penetrate, creating chaos for opposing defenses, but unless MCW’s ball-handling has dramatically improved, expect Syracuse to run more off-ball screens and backdoor cuts and it will be his job to get into the lane and deliver the ball to his teammates.

3. Can C.J. Fair go from glue-guy to go-to-guy?

During his first two seasons on The Hill, Fair has flourished as a scrappy glue-guy, rebounding, getting put-backs, and scoring in transition. Despite averaging 8.5 points per game last year, Fair was rarely the first or second or even the third scoring option when he found himself on the floor. This year will be different; Fair is expected to be one of the primary offensive contributors. His mid-range jump shot is already solid and he’s shown flashes of a decent outside shot (despite shooting only 25% from 3), but if Fair is going to make The Leap and shoulder a significant portion of the scoring load, he’s going to have to be able to put the ball on the floor and knock down a higher percentage of his long range shots.

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4. Can James Southerland be a consistent contributor?

James Southerland is an enigma. There are games, like the two he played against Cincinnati last year (when he was a combined 4-17 from the field), where he seemingly can’t hit the broad side of a barn. There are others, like our opening two games of the NCAA tournament, where he (shot a combined 11-14 and) seemingly couldn’t miss. The double-digit scoring games are easy to understand: he’s 6′ 8” and combines freakish athleticism with perhaps the purest shooting stroke on the team (of anyone not named Trevor Cooney). The disappearing acts that he pulled throughout the season are tougher to understand. Like Triche, Southerland has a tendency to get down on himself when he misses early and it throws off his game. This year, he’ll have ample opportunity to play and he has the potential to be the most prolific scoring sixth man in the country. But potential unrealized is just that, potential.

5. Can Trevor Cooney play enough defense to stay on the court?

When Gerry McNamerra and Mike Hopkins both tell you that a guy has the purest shooting stroke they’ve ever seen, I’m reasonably confident he can shoot the rock. And I think everyone agrees that Cooney can and will shoot it. He’s a three point specialist, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Andy Rautins graduated. But Rautins was also one of the smartest defenders in the history of Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. I have no idea if Cooney can play a lick of defense. He’s 6′ 4” and from the video I’ve seen, deceptively quick (at least on offense), but who knows how he’ll be at the top of the zone. He’s playing behind two guys (Triche and MCW) who are excellent defenders, so the difference between Cooney getting 15 minutes a game and 25, will be whether or not he can hold his own on the defensive end.

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6. How will Rakeem Christmas and Dejuan Coleman be utilized best?

Syracuse forward Rakeem Christmas shoots
How will Rak be used?

Syracuse has options, on both offense and defense. If we need rebounding, we can play Christmas and Coleman simultaneously. If we want quickness, a Fair, Southerland, Christmas (or Keita) front court makes sense. If we want our best scoring lineup, it’s probably Fair, Southerland and Coleman. Options are a good thing, but they also speak to the holes that seem to exist in both Christmas’ and Coleman’s respective games. Both players are capable of playing the four and the five. If they’re on the court at the same time, Coleman seems the more likely candidate to play center, as I think he lacks the quickness and mobility to cover a speedy perimeter player if he’s playing the wing of the zone, but Christmas struggled when he had to play the four last season. If we go with a small(er) lineup, with Fair and Southerland on the wings, then either Coleman or Christmas can play the five, but depending on which one is out there, we lose/gain something on offense/defense/rebounding. So it’s complicated and honestly, I have no idea how things will shake out, or when and where either of them will see most of their time, but if we can get consistent production from them (in one form or another), our front-court is going to be in excellent shape.

7. Can Jerami Grant and Baye Keita contribute enough to warrant consistent minutes?

With three guards and four capable front-line players all seemingly penciled in for 20+ minutes a game, there’s likely no more than one spot up for grabs in Jim Boeheim’s notoriously small rotation. It remains to be seen who will claim that spot or if it will even exist. Keita hustles and is a solid defender in the heart of the zone, but his hands are made of stone and when we have the ball in half court sets, it’s almost like playing four on five when he’s on the floor. But if he can replicate his impressive performances from the Wisconsin and Ohio State tournament games, Keita should be able to crack the rotation at the five. Billy Donovan, a coach that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, heaped praise on the potential of Grant, which was delightful to hear. But my sense is that he’s another year away from contributing on a regular basis. Still, with no clear-cut 4 (Fair and Southerland are a bit undersized and Christmas and Coleman may both be better suited to play the 5), if Grant can come in and defend and rebound, he may just find his way into the rotation as well.

The off-season is about asking questions, but with the official start of the season we’re suddenly much closer to getting some answers. Our defense looks strong, our rebounding and outside shooting improved, but we’re still a few more weeks away from having a real sense of what our rotation will be, seeing whether a team that lost it’s three best penetrators can score in half-court sets, and who (or whom) will emerge as the leaders on this team, both on and off the court. I can’t wait to find out though.

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