Frontcourt: The trio of juniors that makes up the starting frontcourt will return for their final go-round next season. Each of these players had some good moments during the course of the season, but they have all been maddeningly inconsistent.
Demetris Nichols exemplifies this fact perfectly. Nichols was the team's most consistent scoring threat when Syracuse raced out to a 15-2 record at the beginning of the season. When SU hit a rough patch in the middle of year, his scoring dropped off noticeably. After landing in double figures for 23 of the first 25 games, Nichols averaged just 9.1 ppg over the final 10 games.
Those last 10 games showed just how inconsistent Nichols could be. During the Big East tournament, he played some inspired basketball, scoring in double digits each game, pulling down 5 of more boards three times, and hitting 50% of his three point attempts. But then, in the NCAA tournament game against Texas A&M he pulled a complete disappearing act and tallied only 5 points on 2 of 7 shooting.
The other members of the frontcourt were equally as frustrating when it came to their inability to produce on a game-by-game basis. Terrence Roberts finished the season averaging 10.7 ppg and 7.6 rbg, but he was just as likely to score 2 points as he was 16 points. His rebounding during conference play fell off markedly, and his free throw shooting was an affront to the game of basketball.
Still, Roberts showed some good signs late in the season, scoring between 13 and 16 points in 5 of the last 6 games. If you remove his putrid 0 point, 2 rebound effort against Georgetown in the Big East Tournament, he averaged 14.8 points and 7.4 rebounds over that stretch. Roberts must improve both his scoring and rebounding next year if the Orange(men) hope to have a successful season.
The last returning starter is Darryl "Mookie" Watkins. If there is a member of the frontcourt that looks poised to take a big step towards consistent excellence, it's Watkins. Mookie played the best basketball of his career over the last 9 games of the season, averaging 10.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and nearly 3 blocks. He also shot 68% from the line during that stretch.
To add further perspective on how much Watkins improved over the last third of the season, consider his play during Syracuse's four game January losing streak. In losses to Connecticut, Villanova, Pittsburgh, and Seton Hall, Watkins scored a combined total of 11 points. His increased production gives SU fans reason to be optimistic about next year.
All things considered, having the entire frontcourt back next year is a mixed blessing. Will this trio play with a renewed sense of urgency? Will they step up like the senior-laden 1999-2000 team, which went from first round NCAA losers the previous season to Sweet 16 participants the next? There is no question that these guys are athletic enough to challenge as the best frontcourt in the league, but do they have the mental toughness to lead the team?
Ah, the toughness issue... This is where things get interesting and come full circle. I have yet to mention Paul Harris in the frontcourt discussion. Although I mentioned him extensively in the previous article detailing the SU backcourt, I would be remiss to discuss his potential contributions to the frontcourt as well.
Harris has an opportunity to do something no other SU player has ever done - play the backline of the zone on defense and handle the ball on offense. With Boeheim's penchant for putting his best 5 players on the floor, you can bet that Harris will join the returning 4 starters as the major minute-eaters. Although this lineup lacks a true point guard, it does make the Orange tougher and potentially more fearsome on the defensive end.
Harris may supplant Nichols on the back end of the zone due to his superior rebounding abilities. Even though he stands only 6-4, he shows a ferocious NEED to track down errant shots. This infectious intensity should also help the returning players to step up their game.
Injecting Harris into the starting lineup accomplishes two other things. First, it allows Boeheim to put Nichols at the top of the zone, where his long arms and lateral quickness would enable him to be a disruptive presence a la Kueth Duany. Second, adding Harris as a defensive stopper should allow Boeheim to implement some man-to-man defense. Harris is quick enough to defend guards and strong enough to defend forwards, which will help give SU a defensive versatility that it has greatly lacked over the last few years. Whether Boeheim actually uses this remains to be seen, but one can hope.
Another cause for at least guarded optimism in the frontcourt is the fact that the supporting cast also returns. Forward Matt Gorman provided some strong minutes late in the season, and back-up center Arinze Onuaku demonstrated that he can be an active and powerful player. Onuaku played most of the season with nagging injuries to his foot, but with better conditioning and an off-season to recover, he should provide a great alternative to Watkins in the middle. The combination of Watkins and Onuaku could push SU's total production from the center position up towards 13-to-15 points and 9-to-11 rebounds.
Added frontcourt support should come in the form of freshmen forwards Mike Jones and Devin Brennan-McBride. I used the qualifying "should" in the previous sentence because the future is somewhat uncertain for both players. Jones is in a wait-and-see holding pattern with regards to qualifying academically, and Brennan-McBride sustained a shoulder injury this season and missed a majority of the basketball schedule. Mike Jones is coming off a strong senior season and is regarded as a potential sleeper recruit. Little is known about the Canadian prospect Brennan-McBride, other than the fact that he graded out as a top 10 athlete at last year's Nike Camp, which is quite impressive for a 6-9, 240 lb post player.
Overall Assessment: Predicting the success or failure of next year's team is a bit premature at this point. A lot of the assessment will come down to how Boeheim plans on incorporating Paul Harris into the lineup and what the roster looks like on the opening day of practice. There are a lot of question marks right now, including the status of Jones and the make-up of the returning backcourt. Most of these questions won't be answered until mid summer at the earliest.
The one known commodity is that next year's team won't feature fixture Gerry McNamara. The point guard situation is going to be a serious concern, as the only true returning PG doesn't have a great deal of experience. There is no question that the Orange will miss GMac's shooting, and don't be surprised if you find yourself yearning for a player with a floor game that can consistently produce 5 to 8 assists an evening. The biggest loss will be Gerry's ability to make plays in crucial situations. Syracuse proved in its game against Texas A&M that the team did not have anyone willing to step into the go-to roll without Gerry on the court.
That brings us to the big question: will Paul Harris provide this kind of ability? Will he be able to take over McNamara's roll as the player who makes "winning" plays. Will Harris be able to make his teammates better? Just because Harris is a top level talent doesn't mean that Watkins will start catching the ball better, that Nichols will start playing with confidence, and that Roberts will stop making foolish, rushed plays. As I said, the returning frontcout is a mixed blessing. Paul Harris is only one player, and he will need the support of the rising seniors to make next year a success.
Keep in mind that few teams can rely on a freshman to lead the way. Make no mistake, Harris is not Carmelo Anthony. But while Harris may not be as offensively gifted as Anthony was, he brings a toughness and desire to win that was sorely lacking on this year's Orange squad. If he can infuse this attitude into the current batch of players, we might be in for a really interesting season next year. October 15th can't get here fast enough.