Last year, Jim Boeheim guided the Syracuse Orange to his fourth Final Four appearance in his 37 years as head coach. The NCAA Tournament run was a tremendous bounceback for a team that twice ascended to #3 in the national polls, but dropped five of their last eight games in conference play.
In spite of reeling late in the regular season, SU marched through the Big East Tournament in their final appearance, seemingly destined to take home the trophy in their last trip through the tourney. They won their first three games and held a 16-point second half lead in the title game against Louisville. Unfortunately, that is where everything fell apart for the Orange… for that night.
Syracuse rebounded once more, this time in the NCAA Tournament, routing Montana and holding off California to advance to the regionals. From there, the Orange thumped the region’s top-seeded Indiana team, then put away conference rival Marquette to seize a Final Four berth. While the season came to an end against Michigan in the national semifinals, the squad ended with a 30-10 record, giving the team 30 wins in consecutive seasons for the first time and reaching that win plateau for the third time in four seasons and sixth time overall, all under Boeheim.
That team, however, sent two players (Michael Carter-Williams and James Southerland) to the NBA and also sported a top-20 all-time scorer in Syracuse history (Brandon Triche). With those players now gone, the Orange set out on their inaugural season in the ACC needing to fill three spots in the starting lineup, including both guards.
The one spot that there are no questions about is the forward spot manned by C.J. Fair. Named the Preseason ACC Player of the Year and to the watch list for the Oscar Robertson Trophy honoring the national player of the year, Fair averaged 14.5 points and seven rebounds a game last season, increasing his scoring by 70 percent in a starting role and markedly improving his three-point range. Fair leads a deep and experienced frontcourt and will be joined by junior Rakeem Christmas and sophomore DaJuan Coleman on the baseline of the 2-3 zone. Christmas, who has started all but a pair of games in his two years on campus, is a strong shot blocker, but limited offensively (40 of his 87 field goals last season were dunks) and needs to limit his fouling to make a stronger impact on the court. Coleman started the first 20 games of his freshman season before suffering a knee injury that permitted him to appear in only four games the rest of the year. His freshman season showed some signs of potential, though, as Coleman cracked double figures in scoring five times, including one double-double.
In a slight quirk, it is possible that the two reserves who will spell Christmas and Coleman will play and contribute more than those two starters. Defensive specialist center Baye Moussa Keita will compete with Jerami Grant to be the first big man off the bench. Keita, who has played in 110 of 112 games in three years on campus, is a rock in the middle of the 2-3 zone, albeit a very active rock, hustling and calling out defensive adjustments to his teammates. The senior also showed a little offensive bonus in the postseason last year, scoring at least eight points four times in tournament play after doing it just three times in the regular season. Grant is a tantalizing talent as a sophomore who started nine times as a freshman and posted double figures in scoring five times, including a personal best 14 points against Notre Dame. As a top-50 overall recruit, Tyler Roberson is the freshman most likely to see playing time up front, but those opportunities may be limited due to the experienced depth in front of him.
The backcourt is mostly a mystery with three players who have logged a combined 436 minutes of game action for the Orange likely to log almost all the available minutes. In fact, Trevor Cooney played every one of those 436 minutes last season as a redshirt freshman. Cooney was a starter on SU’s exhibition tour this summer and averaged 9.8 points, including three games in double figures. Joining Cooney in the backcourt is a player who has never played for SU. Tyler Ennis, however, comes with a great pedigree, as he was a top-25 recruit and top-five point guard. Ennis played with the Orange on their Canadian exhibition tour, as well as on the Canadian Under-19 national team, this summer. Michael Gbinije, who sat out last season as a transfer from Duke, will back up both Cooney and Ennis, likely spending just a few minutes at point guard in relief of the latter. Freshman Ron Patterson is slated as the fourth guard, but is likely to have limited opportunities.
The Syracuse basketball program has evolved into a factory of late, churning out successful season after successful season. One of the nation’s best frontcourts, led by C.J. Fair and Baye Moussa Keita, is expected to handle the heavy lifting on both ends. Even if that is the case, there are questions about the unit, albeit mostly minor ones: Will Fair slide into the leadership role, specifically a vocal one, on this team? Is Rakeem Christmas able to take on more of a consistent scoring role? Will DaJuan Coleman deliver on the promise he showed as a recruit? Is Jerami Grant going to force his way into the starting lineup? Does freshman Tyler Roberson have the ability to carve out a role for himself on the floor or will he have to wait his turn?
The backcourt raises more pressing questions for the team. Can Tyler Ennis handle the point as a true freshman? Will Trevor Cooney develop into the outside shooter he is expected to be? Does the 2-3 zone get adjusted to compensate for the shorter guards playing the majority of minutes compared to last season? Is Michael Gbinije capable of running the point when Ennis is not on the floor? Will another freshman, Ron Patterson, push for rotation minutes?
Even though all these questions are fair, the Orange squad is simply too talented to be submarined by them. Expect Fair to be the team’s top scorer, Ennis to step right into the point guard role, and one of Christmas or Coleman to provide some offensive punch in the low post on a nightly basis. Even if Christmas and Coleman come up empty, Grant and Keita are ready on the bench. Top it all off with Boeheim pulling the strings of the 2-3 zone and Syracuse should be headed back to the 30-win plateau and another long run in the NCAA Tournament.