October 31, 2011

Preseason Top 32: No. 6 Syracuse

STRENGTHS: Coach Jim Boeheim returns four starters from a 27-win team and adds another good recruiting class, which means expectations are even higher than usual for the Orange. The backcourt should be one of the best in the nation. Senior PG Scoop Jardine has become both more offensive-minded and a more effective distributor each season. He averaged career-highs of 12.5 points and 5.9 assists last season, his first as the starting point man. Jardine shot 35.7 percent from 3-point range but might be better off taking a few less shots from beyond the arc this season. He's also a solid defender. His running mate is junior Brandon Triche, one of three returning starters who averaged in double-figures last season. He struggled at times with his shot last season, but did hit 84.2 percent of his free throws. He is capable of better offensive numbers (11.1 ppg, 41.9 FG%, 33.3 3-pt FG%), and part of his struggles last season could be that he had to adjust to playing off the ball rather than at the point. F Kris Joseph should be the go-to scorer; he led the team in scoring at 14.3 points per game last season and has the talent to add three or four points to that total. He's a solid all-around performer with 3-point ability and a knack for finishing in the lane, and he's a good defender, too. Two lanky sophomores, Fab Melo (originally from Brazil) and Baye Moussa Keita (Senegal), will share time at center; both are raw offensively, but each has shot-blocking ability, which will be put to good use in Boeheim's zone defense. They also can afford to be extra aggressive and not have to worry about foul trouble. Depth looks good everywhere. Sophomore G Dion Waiters is physical and can get into the lane seemingly whenever he wants. He puts his athleticism to good use on defense. Two touted freshmen, F/C Rakeem Christmas and G Michael Carter-Williams, should see a lot of time; they won't have to score for the Orange to be successful, but both have the ability to do so. Christmas arrives with a lot of hype surrounding his defensive skills.

C Fab Melo (7-0/250, Soph.)
F C.J. Fair (6-8/203, Soph.)
F Kris Joseph (6-7/210, Sr.)
G Scoop Jardine (6-2/190, Sr.)
G Brandon Triche (6-4/205, Jr.)
C Baye Moussa Keita (6-10/216, Soph.)
F Rakeem Christmas (6-9/222, Fr.)
F/G James Southerland (6-8/210, Jr.)
G Michael Carter-Williams (6-5/176, Fr.)
G Dion Waiters (6-4/215, Soph.)

Coach: Jim Boeheim (36th season at Syracuse)
Last season's record: 27-8 overall, 12-6 in Big East (T-3rd in league)
Postseason: Lost to Marquette in second round of NCAA tournament
Final regular-season RPI: 18th
Last time didn't make NCAA field: 2008
WEAKNESSES: The one departed starter is F Rick Jackson, who had an excellent senior season (13.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg). He also was a defensive force with 86 blocks and 47 steals. Joseph can take up some of the offensive slack, but Syracuse needs sophomore F C.J. Fair to come through on the boards and defensively. Fair is athletic but lacks bulk (he's 6 feet 8, but he weighs just 203 pounds), and it's fair to wonder how he will fare on the boards in the rugged Big East. Christmas' size and defensive acumen should mean he will be heavily in the mix here. F James Southerland, known more for his shooting ability than anything else, needs to show he can rebound; if he does, he should get extended minutes. The centers won't provide much offense, but if they defend and rebound, that won't matter. In other words, there aren't that many weaknesses.

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OVERVIEW: Syracuse looks primed for a big season. If the Orange can adequately replace Jackson, who was underrated nationally, they can win the Big East title. Boeheim has more depth than usual, and how he deploys it will be interesting to watch. He generally gives his guards a lot of freedom, and Jardine and Triche have been around long enough to know what he expects. Joseph has the ability to blossom into one of the three or four best players in the Big East; if he does that, this is a team that could find itself in the Final Four. There is a lot of size and the big guys are athletic, which means Syracuse's zone could be even more problematic than usual for foes. One negative about the Orange: They haven't advanced beyond the Sweet 16 since 2003, when they won the national title, so they will be under the spotlight in March. That shouldn't bother them.

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Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.


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