Optimism surrounded the Syracuse basketball program heading into the 2018-2019 season. The team returned four starters from a shorthanded team that scratched their way into the NCAA Tournament, then won three games before bowing out in the Sweet Sixteen. With that cast returning, head coach Jim Boeheim’s Orange entered the season ranked #16 in the nation and were voted fourth in the ACC preseason media poll.
Things went south before the season. Point guard Frank Howard started the season on the shelf due to an ankle injury and the team dropped early games to Connecticut and Oregon in the 2K Classic. The team responded with five straight wins, but dropped home games to Old Dominion and Buffalo, heading into ACC play at 9-4.
SU found their footing in conference play, winning five of their first six, including a 95-91 overtime thriller at #1 Duke. The Orange finished the first half of the conference slate at 7-2, then came back to earth, dropping six of their final nine. After finishing the regular season 19-12 overall and 10-8 in conference play, Syracuse added a victory in their first ACC Tournament game, but was then bounced by Duke. The Orange eked into the NCAA Tournament, but their postseason run ended quickly, as they were dispatched by Baylor, 78-69.
The offseason saw an exodus of starters as Paschal Chukwu and Frank Howard completed their eligibility. Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett departed soon after, declaring for the NBA draft. Those losses leave a young, mostly inexperienced team behind.
Elijah Hughes, the lone returning starter, and sixth man Marek Dolezaj will lead the team this season, returning to those roles. Buddy Boeheim and Bourama Sidibe, who provided support in reserve roles last season, will fill two spots of the starting lineup. Jalen Carey, who played sporadically as a freshman, is expected to get the snod next to Boeheim in the backcourt and Quincy Guerrier, one of five freshmen to join the team, will complete the starting lineup.
While the team is inexperienced, it does have something missing from the last couple SU teams – an abundance of perimeter shooting. Hughes led the team from the perimeter last season while Boeheim’s range will also stretch opposing defenses. Reserve Robert Braswell looked very good from beyond the arc in exhibition season and Joe Girard III and Brycen Goodine are a pair of freshmen whose perimeter shooting may help them earn playing time.
At the same time, that inexperience will be something for this team to overcome. Boeheim started five times, Carey twice, and that is it on the top line of the 2-3 zone. All told, the five guards on the roster have under 1,000 minutes of collegiate play combined, leaving a lot of learning to be done and a lot to be asked for during the season. Sidibe is expected to anchor the back line, but he has under 700 minutes of play in two seasons, in part due to knee issues. In fact, only Dolezaj and Hughes have significant on-court experience for SU. The Orange did go on a summer trip to Italy, getting practice time and four games over the summer to foster growth both individually and as a unit.
That inexperience is one of the major reasons why Syracuse was voted eighth in the ACC preseason media poll, just behind Notre Dame. The Orange also garnered just a few points in each of the national polls heading into the season, finishing behind at least six conference representatives in those polls, as well. That would project the Orange to end the season in a similar place they have been in the last few seasons – the NCAA Tournament bubble.