The college basketball media called him the most underrated player in the conference, if not the country. The team called him its soul and leader. Now, Rick Jackson is simply departed, playing professional basketball in France. In what is one of the best and worst aspects of college sports, the team has to simply move on.
Maybe it's not so simple, but somebody (or a host of players) has big shoes to fill.
"Rickey was the best inside player defensively and rebounding-wise in the league last year and that says a lot," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said during the team's media day. "It's going to be up to be up to the guys that are going to be in there now to pick up that responsibility that Rickey was so consistent with last year.
We think we've got enough guys with experience to be able to do that."
Even the casual SU fan will tell you that Fab Melo should be first up for the job. The highly-touted 7-footer was somewhat of a disappointment last season as a freshman, but he has re-dedicated himself to his body and the team.
"I had a great summer," Melo said. "I played in ( a league) with Scoop (Jardine) and with my Brazil National Team and it was a great experience.
"And about last season, we had a lot of expectations (for) me, but this year I know what they expect from me. I think it's going to be a better year."
Melo said he worked all summer on conditioning, and he looks the part. The center looks slimmer and more focused, though he admitted that he still needs to work on understanding the famed 2-3 zone that coach Boeheim has utilized during his time at SU.
The Brazilian won't be the sole contributor in the replacement of Jackson, though. Fellow sophomore Baye Moussa Keita, who also saw extensive playing time as a freshman along with Melo behind Jackson, will be in the mix as well. Keita was hampered by a hand/wrist injury as a freshman, but he is healthy heading into the 2011-12 campaign after surgery in April.
"Last I feel like I kind of missed out just a little bit because of my wrist," Keita said. "I've been working on the same things (since the surgery), like getting stronger. Every summer you have to work on something you lacked."
What Keita may lack in size (just 213 pounds), he has the chance to make up for in length. But his inability to bang for two halves at the college level was somewhat exploited as a freshman.
Melo's issue was foul trouble and conditioning, so his year was more of a mental learning expiriance. But both centers have plenty to be positive about heading into a highly-anticipated year No. 2.
"It's been my experience that centers from freshman to sophomore years take big jumps. And I think our centers will take big jumps this year and be much more effective this year than last year," Boeheim said. "It was a good learning experience, I think, the fact that they got to play so much as freshmen. ... And I think they know how difficult it is and what they have to do to be successful. Both of them had some tremendous moments last year. That's very much a positive. They don't have to look back like everything was bad. Because it wasn't."
Perhaps even better news is that the two sophomores will have some help in what Boeheim called maybe his deepest team ever. Freshman Rakeem Christmas is another prospect that created some buzz, and he will undoubtedly get his chances on the front line along with Melo and Keita.
In the team's Midnight Madness scrimmage, all three big men came up with at least on block and added an inside score.