Whether you take a look at the numbers or the win-loss results, it's tough to argue Syracuse men's basketball and the No. 1 ranking in both polls. The makeup of the team is similar to last year's bunch, but two freshmen have infused some energy into the 2011-12 group along with four sophomores who have turned the corner to put the team over the top.
Though the team may be coach Jim Boeheim's best group since the 2003 title team led by Carmelo Anthony, the unit is far from that point just 10 games into the campaign. There is plenty of work to be done, but so far so good. Here's where each player stands six weeks into the season.
As a team, the numbers are dominant. Not only does the Orange lead the nation in steals per game (12.3), but it also is tops in the country at turnover margin – more importantly. The defense is also playing well inside the paint, as evidenced by the nearly seven blocks per game it produces. The mark is good for seventh in the nation.
Offensively, the group lies within the top 25 nationally in scoring offense (80.1), scoring margin (22.8), assists per game (17.2) and assists to turnover ratio (1.45). The attack has admittedly missed out on some opportunities and continues to struggle from long range, so it has a chance to improve further going forward.
CuseNation.com won't go through every player on the deep roster, but we will hit the 10 players in the rotation for the majority of games thus far.
Senior Scoop Jardine has been a pleasant surprise this season. Not because of his occasional scoring or ability to play the passing lanes, but because of how he is protecting the ball. He is 20th in the country with 5.9 helpers per game, but he has more than twice the amount of assists than turnovers. He has finished each of the last two seasons in the same light, but this year's mistakes are more due to not getting a handle on the ball as opposed to bonehead passes.
Brandon Triche, now a junior, has delivered on what Boeheim has asked. The coach has been adamant about Triche going to the rim and playing aggressively, and he has done so for the most part through 10 contests. He's on pace to shoot more than he ever has in his career, and he is able to convert 43 percent of his shots in the process. Triche has yet to find his deep stroke, so it should get better going forward. He has played well on the defensive end at the top of the 2-3 zone, and stands as a big reason the team leads the country in steals.
Dion Waiters has arguably made the biggest jump in terms of impact from one year to the other. The sophomore who was once considered an offense-only player, leads the team in steals thus far. Waiters has also found a way to play more explosive on the offensive end, which is a tribute to the offseason work he put in. He is second on the team in scoring (11.9 ppg) and has been a major spark on both ends of the floor in big wins (vs. Marshall, Stanford, Virginia Tech). Waiters' jump shot still needs work and he still rushes shots at times, but the good has far outweighed the bad thus far.
Freshman Michael Carter-Williams has progressed nicely since the preseason. He is coming off of his best game (against George Washington) in which he notched eight assists against zero turnovers. Carter-Williams leads the team in assist to turnover ratio (3.5) and only Triche has better rebounding numbers among the guards. The rookie's scoring game has yet to arrive, but his experience and added playing time will aid the process.
Kris Joseph has made most forget about the knee recovery that plagued him entering the season. He has looked efficient offensively, going to the cup and hitting open jumpers. Joseph leads the team in scoring (13.7 ppg) as he should, but he is also doing pacing the Orange on the glass with over six boards per contest. Joseph is also third on the team in steals. The senior is playing like the leader he has been expected to be.
Rakeem Christmas has also gone through some rookie moments, but the experience against weaker competition has helped the big man adjust to the college game. He is coming off of his most active game on both ends, and has progressed as the season has. Christmas has a very long way to go, but he has taken over the jump-ball duties in games while starting each contest. The ability is there, but he should remain on a short leash until he proves to be more consistent as a rebounder and inside presence.
C.J. Fair is another sophomore who has injected some life on the floor for the Orange. He was arguably the team's best player in the NIT semi-finals and championship games at Madison Square Garden, logging starter's minutes off of the bench. Fair is usually first to enter the game from the sidelines for Christmas, and he will be left in the fray unless he suffers a letdown as he did against Marshall. However, Fair has been solid more times than not as a smooth scorer and talented rebounder. The best has yet to come from the wing-man.
James Southerland has been the most streaky player on the roster. The junior has lit up the smaller schools (Albany, Manhattan, Eastern Michigan and Colgate) for at least 14 points in each game, but he has gone cold against the Florida's of the world. Southerland has all of the ability in the world to put the ball in the basket either as a shooter or slasher, but consistency has been an issue. He has progressed defensively, as evidenced by him ranking second on the team in both blocks and steals.
Fab Melo has made the biggest leap in terms of impact from one year to the next. Coach Boeheim has said several times that centers have the toughest time adjusting to the college game, but Melo's issues were more extensive than that. He has slimmed down, bulked up and played with a fire that was rarely seen in 2010-11. Melo is 27th in the entire country in blocks per game (2.6) and he has altered more shots than not while defending the paint. His rebounding is still far from where it needs to be, but his offense has also turned the corner. He has already equaled his shot attempts from all of last season, while shooting a better free throw percentage in the process. Melo has also reduced the bonehead fouls that plagued him as a freshman on the way to the improvement. He has plenty of room to get better from here, too.
Baye Moussa Keita has also shown some improvement from the center position, but it seems to be more health related. His hand/wrist is healthy and he has been able to make his presence felt inside as a result. Because of Melo's success, Keita has not seen considerable minutes and he has been a victim of bad fouls as a result of the limited playing time. Of the four sophomores in the 10-deep, Keita has been the biggest disappointment - though he has had the most limited chances.
These evaluations stem mostly from lesser competition with the exception of a trio of games, so expect the road to get tougher as Big East play approaches. The rotation may bog down to seven or eight in bigger games, though any of the aforementioned 10 players may play a role.
The biggest question going forward is how the team will respond once facing a considerable second-half deficit, something we have not seen much thus far. The situation will test the group just as much as the No. 1 ranking on its back will.