Prior to the tip off, the 2019-2020 basketball season was pretty much one big question mark for Syracuse. The team was losing four starters from a defensive-minded squad that eked into the NCAA Tournament and had just three rotation players returning. The inexperienced Orange were projected to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the ACC, finishing eighth in the preseason media poll.
Elijah Hughes was the lone returning starter and was moving from a supporting role to the team’s lead option. Buddy Boeheim and Marek Dolezaj were promoted from bench roles to the starting lineup, the former as the most experienced guard on the team with not much more than 500 minutes and five starts to his name.
That youth in the backcourt showed from opening night, as SU christened their first 20-game ACC schedule by hosting the defending champions from Virginia and mustered all of 34 points in a loss. Syracuse ran off four straight wins as the schedule eased to seemingly right their ship, but got waxed by three major conference opponents in seven days during the NIT Season Tip-Off and ACC-Big Ten Challenge, evening their record at 4-4 overall.
The Orange seemingly figured some things out in a rout at Georgia Tech, but immediately followed that with a loss at Georgetown. While SU was handled easily by their longtime rival, Joe Girard III solidified himself as the starting point guard in the game, officially settling the starting lineup. Three straight non-conference wins followed, sending the team into the bulk of conference play at 8-5.
ACC action was marked with a lot of tight games. All but five games over the remainder of conference play were decided by single digits. After a couple tight losses, Syracuse started a five-game win streak with an overtime win at Virginia where they scored 20 of their 63 points in the extra session. The hot streak put the Orange at 6-3 in conference, but they immediately dropped five of six, giving up at least 79 points in four of those games.
SU closed with three wins in their final five scheduled games, evening out their record at 10-10 in conference play and 17-14 overall, then played their best game of the season in the opener of the ACC Tournament, blitzing North Carolina, 81-53. The season was ended by the coronavirus pandemic the next day.
Over the course of the season, the 2019-2020 Syracuse team had proven themselves to be one of the worst defensive units of the last two decades under Jim Boeheim. The squad ranked 116th in defensive efficiency at kenpom.com, barely edging out the 2016-2017 team that went to the NIT. Their offense, particularly three-point shooting, was their calling card, as Boeheim, Girard, and Hughes each made at least 70 triples.
Hughes declared for the NBA draft, but Alan Griffin transferred to the Orange from Illinois and is expected to step into Hughes’ place in the starting lineup. Guards Jalen Carey, Brycen Goodine, and Howard Washington all transferred out of the program, leaving the backcourt shorthanded behind the returning Boeheim and Girard.
Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe, who started every game last season, both return to fill out the starting lineup with Boeheim, Girard, and Griffin. Quincy Guerrier, who played through an injury that required offseason surgery as a freshman, returns as the first forward off the bench. Robert Braswell, who is also healthy after redshirting last season, hopes to carve out a role in the forward rotation. Jesse Edwards, who saw spot duty off the bench at center last season, will have competition for minutes from freshman Frank Anselem.
Anselem is not even the freshman generating the most hype, as Kadary Richmond has been the name spoken most often over the summer and in the preseason. Richmond looks to crack the rotation at both guard spots and possibly small forward. Forward Woody Newton is the third member of Syracuse’s incoming recruiting class, but will have to fight through a glut of more experienced players for minutes.
Should Griffin, who shot 41.6 percent from three for the Fighting Illini last season, be able to fill Hughes’ shoes, this year’s Syracuse team will resemble last season’s version on offense. Three strong perimeter shooters will roam the outside, all with a very green light. Dolezaj will give the team a little bit of everything and Sidibe will once again have to work for anything he gets on offense.
Improving the defense, however, is another question altogether. Sidibe, who was a very effective rebounder down the stretch last season, and Dolezaj both bulked up some over the offseason, which should help them both withstand the rigors of playing down low. Both, however, need to focus on reducing their fouls. Griffin was a good rebounder at Illinois, posting the team’s second-highest rebounding rate, but he has to learn the intricacies of the 2-3 zone.
The bigger question is if the guards will be able to stop penetration, rotate, and challenge shots better with their physical limitations. Neither Boeheim nor Girard is exceptionally athletic, be it measured in foot speed or jumping ability, and the latter is much shorter than the guards who have led the Orange’s top defensive performances. They will both need to be better on the top line and will be counting on last season’s experience to help them improve.
While a couple popular statistical analysis sites project SU to be significantly better this season, starting the campaign among the top 40 teams in the country, a large amount of that is due to having many players return and an expected improvement on defense when they were outside the top 100 in that stat last year.
Unsurprisingly, Syracuse did not make much noise in the preseason polls, getting a handful of votes in the coaches’ poll and nary a mention in the AP version. The Orange were also predicted a distant sixth in the ACC media vote prior to the season. The gap in points amassed between SU and the fifth-place Louisville Cardinals (459) is barely smaller than the one between Syracuse and 12th-place Notre Dame (465).
In other words, it appears Syracuse is destined to be part of the middle of the ACC standings once more. By this point, we all know that means saying hello to our old friend, the NCAA Tournament bubble.