Frankly Speaking: SU Basketball

In about a month they'll be rolling out the basketballs at Manley Field House for Jim Boeheim's 29th season as head coach of Orange hoops. (By the way, raise your hands if these seem to be the fastest 29 years you've ever experienced.)

Expectations are sky-high for the 2004-2005 edition. Hey, when the Dalai Lama of college basketball, ESPN commentator Dick Vitale, picks SU number 11 entering the season, you just know the stars and planets may be aligned for something very special to take place on the Hill.

There's excellent reason for all the optimism. Two right off the bat are 6-foot-8 senior forward and dunk master Hakim Warrick, who decided to shun the millions he could've snared from the NBA and return for his final season of eligibility, and sharp-shooting guard and already-SU-legend Gerry McNamara. Both have been named to Vitale's Preseason All-Rolls Royce team: Warrick a first-team selection, McNamara a fourth-team selection.

"Warrick brings that feathery jump shot, offensive-rebounding skill and shot-blocking talent, McNamara and Warrick will give Syracuse one of the best 1-2 punches in America next season," wrote Vitale.

I'm not sure when and where Warrick picked up that feathery jump shot, although he has been working on one during the offseason to improve his standing with NBA general managers and personnel people, but perhaps Vitale saw Warrick in a gym on another planet and has himself some inside information on the effectiveness of Warrick's jumper. What a pleasant surprise that would be if Warrick's perimeter game did indeed feature a feathery jump shot in the repertoire! (Vitale couldn't possibly be getting Warrick and McNamara confused, could he? If so, then an updated eyeglass prescription would be in order for the college basketball mouth that always roars.)

Nevertheless, McNamara and Warrick, with or without that jumper, also have earned spots on the John R. Wooden Award Preseason All-America Team. Just 50 collegians were selected by the National Preseason Selection Committee, so that's pretty heady company, indeed, for the SU duo.

Warrick, who earned second-team All American status from and The Sporting News and third-team designation from The Associated Press, led the Orange with a highlight-reel leading 76 dunks and averaged 19.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Yes, Warrick has been working on an outside shot to give his game a more-rounded look. If he can pose a legitimate threat from there, Warrick will be even more dangerous as teams won't be able to collapse on him inside.

The junior McNamara, arguably the most popular player in school history, is the team's heart and soul and by far its best shooter (which is a problem to be mentioned later). Who can forget the school-best 43 points he scored against Brigham Young in the opening game of last season's NCAA tournament? McNamara averaged 17.2 points per game in 2003-2004 during which time he established SU records for three-pointers made and attempted. McNamara's points weren't often easy to come by, several players often dogged his every move on the perimeter. McNamara was bone-weary after every game and needs some serious help from the outside for both McNamara and the Orange to flourish in 2004-2005Ñand to stay walking.

Returning starters also include senior center Craig Forth, senior swingman Josh Pace and sophomore forward/guard Demetris Nichols. At press time, the status of guard Billy Edelin, who started 16 games until he left the team for medical reasons, was uncertain.

Forth, of East Greenbush, has excelled consistently in the classroom but not as consistently on the court at SU. Yes, Forth's influence on the offense is often misunderstood, understated or taken for granted; he sets great picks and knows the offense inside-out. And, he has exhibited an aggressiveness and assertiveness at times you demand to see from a 7-foot, 255-pounder of considerable talent (see double-doubles against UConn and Maryland and 18 points at Missouri). Too often, and maddeningly so for many, however, Forth is passive and plays too soft. Forth must bring his game to the level he displayed against the Huskies, Terrapins and Tigers in his final season for Syracuse to achieve something really special.

Pace started every game last season but his best spot might be as the team's sixth man because of the energy he brings to the game. Pace in all likelihood will find himself starting again unless something unforeseen develops in preseason practice, such as Edelin returning or freshman Josh Wright grabbing the starting backcourt slot alongside G-Mac. All Pace does is hit quirky shot after quirky shot, grab a big rebound, grab a loose ball, make a key defensive stop. By the time the game is over, you marvel at Pace's line in the boxscore, shake your head, and wonder how he did it. Then he does it all over again. Pace is no threat from the outside, which allows opponents to focus their perimeter attention on McNamara.

Nichols, considered a legitimate three-point threat when he arrived on campus, scored a personal best 17 against Providence but was inconsistent from the outside during much of the season. Nichols started 15 games after Edelin's departure, and it was hoped he would take the pressure off McNamara down the stretch, but he rarely found his groove from the outside. To the point, Nichols shot just 24 percent from the three-point line and just 35 percent from the field. If Nichols finds some consistency after an off-season of workouts, he could become a key member of this year's squad.

What Edelin's role on this year's team is unclear, even if the NCAA rules favorably on his eligibility. Certainly Edelin and McNamara make for a formidable duo, but questions remain as to what issue will come up this year to dog Edelin and his teammates. First, it's being suspended from the university for an entire year. Then, it's missing 12 games, as unfair as it was, per the NCAA's ruling. Then, it's leaving for medical reasons. Edelin's a great kid, but at some point SU may have to cut its losses and move on, possibly without Billy the Kid.

Regardless of Edelin's presence, Utica-Proctor's Josh Wright could very well have what it takes to start at point guard in his freshman season. Wright has speed that we haven't seen in years and could add a dimension the team lacked a year ago. He has an incredibly quick first step, can seemingly get to the basket at will and has demonstrated a good-enough jumper to keep defenses honest.

Incoming 6-foot-6, 225-pound freshman banger Dayshawn Wright, who played last season at Oak Hill Academy, could log considerable minutes to give the Orange a boost on the boards.

Forward Terrence Roberts and guard Louie McCroskey each had their moments in their freshmen seasons but need to make marked improvements and become more consistent performers. They both have the potential to do so. With Jeremy McNeil gone, sophomore Darryl Watkins becomes Forth's backup, but is the 6-foot-11 Watkins ready to assume that role after logging scant minutes a year ago? That's one of the questions to be determined before the team's first exhibition game against LeMoyne on Nov. 2. He certainly has the body and raw ability.

This team isn't without additional questions. Certainly Watkins is one of them. Perhaps the largest question is who will join McNamara as a consistent shot maker from the perimeter? If Nichols or Josh Wright aren't up to the challenge it will be another grueling season for McNamara, and it makes the specter of an injury to McNamara that much more ominous. Give McNamara some help from the perimeter, (read that Nichols and Josh Wright), get more consistency from Roberts and McCroskey as well as serviceable minutes from Watkins, receive consistently strong play from Forth and the expected from Warrick and McNamara and you have the ingredients for another banner year on the Hill, maybe even good enough to raise another National Championship banner.

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