With the end of the college basketball season and the start of the live evaluation periods for high school recruits, the conversation around Syracuse Men’s Basketball has turned to future recruiting classes. Coach Boeheim has been on the road each of the last two weekends, and the Orange has extended offers to a reported 13 players in the 2017 class.
But while Syracuse’s long-term success is inexorably tied to its recruiting, the team’s success in 2016-2017 will depend much more on off-season development of the current roster than adding the final pieces to the 2016 freshman class.
In six of the last seven seasons, Syracuse’s go-to player was an upperclassman, and in each year except 2010, when junior Wesley Johnson was getting the ball in the clutch, that go-to player was a senior. This list includes Michael Gbinije, Rakeem Christmas, CJ Fair, Kris Joseph/Scoop Jardine, and Rick Jackson. Even in the one year where this was not the case, when Michael Carter-Williams held the reigns as a sophomore, SU leaned heavily on the senior leadership of Brandon Triche and James Southerland.
Entering 2016-2017, the Orange will have at least two seniors in DaJuan Coleman and Tyler Roberson, plus any additional graduate transfers added in the offseason. But while Coleman displayed leadership qualities throughout last season he does not have the look of a go-to scorer. Roberson, on the other hand, has the physical tools to dominate the game but has not had the polish to be a go-to threat on offense nor has he shown the qualities of a vocal leader.
With no juniors on the roster, it appears that Syracuse may be for the first time in many years a team led predominantly by underclassmen. Malachi Richardson, if he decides to return to school, has displayed the confidence of a go-to scorer, even if his shooting has suffered from inconsistency. Tyler Lydon has the passion and intensity to lead by example, as well as a smooth shooting stroke that should have his scoring average in the mid-teens next season. Frank Howard, despite playing just 22 percent of available minutes last season, is likely to see the most time of any guard at the point.
There is plenty of potential in this group, but for Syracuse to have a truly great season that fulfills that promise, it will need the upperclassmen to take a leap in performance. Both Roberson and Coleman have shown flashes of greatness in the past. Roberson posted 14 points on 50 percent shooting along with 20 rebounds in SU’s road victory over Duke. Coleman, although he never managed gaudy offensive statistics, played better defense and rebounded more effectively during the NCAA Tournament than in the ACC conference schedule.
Syracuse has managed to elicit significant jumps in performance from its upperclassmen before. Taking the most recent examples, Gbinije improved his scoring by 4 points per 40 minutes from his junior to senior year, all while improving his efficiency from the field. His assists per 40 minutes also improved from 4.1 to 4.5. Christmas’s jump the previous season was even more impressive. His scoring per 40 minutes more than doubled from 9.8 to 20.4, and he increased his rebounds per 40 minutes by 1.8.
Could a similar jump be in the cards for Roberson or Coleman? Of the two, Roberson would seem to be more likely. With 7-2 big man Paschal Chukwu becoming eligible after sitting out a transfer season, Coleman will have even more competition at the center spot after a season in which he played just 43.4 percent of available minutes and was used on 17 percent of possessions.
For Roberson to make the leap, he will need to improve his jump shot. Although he entered the 2015-2016 season having worked on his jumper throughout the offseason, Roberson was never able to make 10-15 footers consistently. Opposing defenses would routinely slough off him and give him open shots. After one too many trips into Boeheim’s doghouse, he eventually gave up on the jumper and looked to drive to the basket.
Roberson’s driving ability could also be improved, but nothing will open up the rest of the offense more than his ability to keep the defense honest with a jumper. Additionally, Roberson was too often stripped of the ball on his drives and ended up with a high turnover rate for someone who was not a focal point of the offense.
All of these deficiencies can be improved with an offseason of work. If the coaching staff’s track record with previous players is any indication, Roberson and Coleman should both be in for big years to wrap up their Orange careers. Despite a promising incoming class of freshmen and potentially one of the best sophomore classes in the country next season, Syracuse will need these seniors to lead if it is going to make 2016-2017 truly a season to remember.