Manhattan Season to Date: The Jaspers have played only 2 games this year, losing both. Their first defeat came at the hands of a weak Seton Hall squad (66-52), but they followed that up with a better effort against George Mason in a 72-66 loss. Last year's team finished at 15-14, an uncharacteristically poor showing considering they had won 48 games in the previous two seasons. Although the team has struggled early, Blue Ribbon picked it to finish 2nd in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and challenge for an NCAA tourney bid.
Series History: Syracuse holds a 19-7 edge in head-to-head matchups with Manhattan. The Orange have won the last 9 games, which includes 3 meetings over the last 4 years. The most memorable of the recent games was in March 2003, when SU beat Manhattan 76-65 in the first game of a six game sweep of the NCAA tournament. The following season, the Jaspers put a valiant fight before falling 69-63 on December 17th in the Carrier Dome. Gerry McNamara is the only Orange(man) with an appreciable history against Manhattan (13.5 ppg, 4.0 apg, 38.5% 3pt).
Meet the Jaspers: Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzales doesn't have the same caliber of team that he had in recent seasons, such as the 2002-03 that met the Orange in the first round of the NCAA tourney. Back then, he could rely on former Rutgers player Luis Flores, who was one of the leading scorers in the nation at more than 24 ppg. Three backcourt players remain from that team - the PG duo of Jason Wingate and Kenny Minor, and perimeter sharpshooter Mike Konovelchick. All three are solid contributors, but none of them is the type of player that can single-handedly take over a game. To find a player who might fit into that class, you'll have to look at a trio of the sophomores - C.J. Anderson, Arturo Dubois, and Jeff Xavier.
Anderson, a 6-6 wing, is the team's leading scorer through 2 games. He won the MAAC rookie-of-the-year award last season after pouring in 16.1 points and 8.6 rebounds on a nightly basis. He has a great deal of presence on the court and is just as comfortable setting up his teammates (3.5 assists per game) as he is playing the role of leading scorer. Anderson is clearly one of the top mid-major talents in the nation, thanks to his combination of size and athleticism, but he won't be able to intimidate the Orange the way that he does rival MAAC teams.
Dubois is a big physical player at 6-8, 235 lbs. He played high school ball at Rice in Harlem, New York, so he's not likely to back down against top competition. The biggest problem for Dubois in his young career has been foul trouble - he's a disqualification waiting to happen. Last year he fouled out of nearly half the team's games. Jeff Xavier, a 6-0 guard, is another player who can take on the scoring burden. He's struggled to hit the long ball this year, but last year he proved can make them if left open (43 triples).
The starting line-up figures to be Wingate, Xavier, and Konovelchick in the backcourt and Anderson and Dubois up front. Manhattan will be giving up size at every position with only one starter standing over 6-6. While SU has been strong on the backboards this year (+7.8 rpg), they have not managed to control the interior from an offensive standpoint. Wednesday's game will give Boeheim an opportunity to try and develop some post-up offense from his big men against this undersized squad.
Outlook: Despite putting up 96 points in the last game, the Orangemen still have several concerns to address as the season starts to take shape. First off, a more commanding defensive presence will be needed to win games in the newly-expanded Big East conference. While the Orange have looked sharp at times in the 2-3 zone (vs. Texas Tech, Bethune-Cookman), they have also had significant stretches where they have been unable to defend against long range shots (Cornell/Florida/Bucknell) or on the inside (Florida/Bucknell). Positioning on the interior has been problematic for both Darryl Watkins and Terrance Roberts, and freshman Arinze Onuaku has already run into foul trouble during his young career. Watkins has been blocking his share of shots (3.3 bpg), but this has also resulted in giving up many freebies, as he often ends up out of position after stepping too far from the basket to try for improbable swats.
Another major issue is the development of a serviceable half-court offense. The 'Cuse has had some success in transition this year, but has also struggled to score when opponents have slowed the tempo and speed of the game. Much of the problem with the half-court offense stems from the lack of a dedicated "go-to" guy, which is usually a strong point for Boeheim-coached squads. He typically builds his team around multi-talented frontcourt players who can shoot, pass, dribble, and rebound. Unfortunately, the main candidates for this job (Terrance Roberts and Demetris Nichols) have come up short in one or more of these categories so far this year. The good news is that both have shown considerable improvement since last year and are getting more comfortable with their expanded roles relative to last season.
Point guard Gerry McNamara needs to recognize that Roberts and Nichols are legitimate scoring threats and get them the ball more often. McNamara is off to a poor start shooting the ball, but he is putting up career numbers in assists and assist to turnover ratio. He has shown some signs of regaining his perimeter touch, having made just over 40% from three point range in the last 4 games after opening the year a dismal 1-17 from beyond the arc. Distributing the ball is a win/win proposition for the G-Man - the more other players on the team develop as scoring threats, the more likely that Gerry will get good quality open shots in return. Everyone who has followed the Orange for the last 4 years knows that McNamara is capable of big things, but now the onus is on him to deliver night in and night out. The first step will be improving his shot selection.
Another player that can help Gerry out immensely is shooting guard Eric Devendorf. The Bay City Baller was inserted into the starting lineup against Siena after Louie McCroskey failed to solidify that spot in the previous 5 games. Devendorf has slowly started to round into shape with his lethal driving ability and he can further complement McNamara with his solid outside shooting stroke. It appears that with the change in the starting lineup, Boeheim is making a move for the team's future. Now is the time for both of these guards to develop the kind of on-court chemistry that leads to winning games.
What better time to start than Wednesday? The Jaspers have a decent amount of talent and figure to be a solid mid-major team before the season is done. They should provide a good challenge to SU's inexperienced players. While they won't be confused with the Dukes and Kentuckies of the world, they are a great deal better than the usual in-state November/December cannon fodder that takes up temporary residentce in the Dome. As always, Gonzales will have his team pressing and playing hard. Look for Manhattan to stay close for the first half before SU's athleticism and size leads to a victory. Syracuse 73 Manhattan 64.