Orange Tip Off Against Bryant Bulldogs

Lights. Camera. Action! The Syracuse Orange take to the court on Wednesday evening in an exhibition game against the Bryant University Bulldogs at 7 PM in the Carrier Dome. Head coach Jim Boeheim will welcome Josh Wright into the starting lineup, replacing Gerry McNamara, a 4-year mainstay and Syracuse legend. The game also marks the collegiate debuts of freshmen Paul Harris and Mike Jones.

For diehard fans of the Orange, every off-season is long, but I can't seem to remember one that seemed quite as long as this one. Perhaps the lingering disappointment of losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament has added to my anxiety? Or perhaps the hype surrounding incoming freshman Paul Harris has amplified my anticipation? Maybe I'm just excited and/or terrified to see how Boeheim replaces McNamara? Regardless of the source of my anxiety, I'll get my SU fix on Wednesday night.

I really want to say that we'll all get a chance to see the "new look" Orange, but that seems like a ridiculous thing to say considering that 80% of the starting lineup returns. Still, McNamara was such a fixture in the starting lineup that it will seem downright weird to see the Orange take the court without him. And considering that Josh Wright and Paul Harris figure to see significant time in the backcourt, this team will probably have a considerably different feel than last year's squad.

Early word out of practice has Wright inheriting McNamara's spot in the starting lineup. Wright has reportedly played pretty strong basketball in the preseason practices and is the team's only true point guard. He will be given an early opportunity to permanently claim the starting role, but his position is by no means secure at this juncture. His outstanding open court speed could turn into a major asset for this team.

Joining Wright in the starting lineup will be the four returning starters: seniors Darryl Watkins, Terrance Roberts, and Demetris Nichols, along with sophomore Eric Devendorf. Nichols and Devendorf seem poised to lead the team from an offensive standpoint; both have had strong practices thus far in the young season. Look for much of the offense to run through Devendorf, particularly when Wright is not on the floor.

The first man off the bench will be freshman Paul Harris. A supreme physical talent, Harris is a player unlike any other that Boeheim has brought to Syracuse. He already has an NBA physique, can handle and pass like a point guard, and rebound like a power forward. He is regarded as the best SU recruit since Carmelo Anthony, but SU fans should be careful not to compare him to ‘Melo.

For one thing, Harris has struggled somewhat to adjust to the bigger, faster, quicker collegiate players. His style in high school was largely predicated on overpowering opponents, and that is not as likely to happen at the Big East level. Even so, he does not have to put up big numbers in the scoring column to dominate a game. Harris can rebound, handle, pass, and defend. With his versatility, look for him to force his way onto the court for major minutes as the season goes on.

The rest of the bench will consist of Matt Gorman, Andy Rautins, and Mike Jones. Expect to see each of these players get major minutes against Bryant, as Boeheim searches for the right combinations on both the defensive and offensive ends. Gorman is the primary frontcourt sub and will play a huge role this season due to Arinze Onuaku's injured knees. Andy Rautins has shown very high confidence in his outside shot during the preseason, and may be Boeheim's zone buster off the bench.

That leaves us with Mike Jones. Early reports say that Jones is far ahead of where the staff expected him to be as an incoming freshman, and that he has been playing excellent basketball in practice. His fundamentals and inherent knowledge of the game have been praised, and history tells us that Boeheim loves players who come to campus with an advanced basketball IQ (see: Moten, Lawrence and Anthony, Carmelo). Given that senior Demetris Nichols is ahead of Jones in the rotation, don't expect him to have the impact that the aforementioned players had, but at the same time don't rule him out as a major contributor this season.

The final player who might see minutes on Wednesday is freshman Devin Brennan-McBride. The 6-9 forward has wowed practice-goers with his speed and leaping ability in practice, but his skill set lacks far behind his athleticism. If not for Onuaku's injury, Brennan-McBride would have most likely taken a redshirt this season.

The gameplan against Bryant University will be simple: play uptempo basketball, employ mostly man-to-man defense, and get as many different rotations on the floor as possible. Boeheim will be testing out the man-to-man defense to see if his team can collectively rise to the level of intensity that Harris will bring. As usual, the team MUST show it can defend in the man-to-man during the early games, or it will once again be a steady diet of zone when conference play begins in January.

Bryant is a Division II school that doesn't figure to give SU any serious trouble. The Bulldogs return two double-figure scorers and are predicted to challenge for the Northeast-10 conference championship, but they will be giving up major size and athleticism all over the court. Their biggest players are 6-7 sophomore forwards Ryan McLean and Jerann Wright, and one of their returning leading scorers is a 6-3 swingman (Jon Ezeokoli).

Look for Syracuse to win rather easily, with a margin somewhere in the 20-40 point range. More importantly, pay close attention to the different combinations that Boeheim puts on the court. With Harris as the 6th man, Boeheim has the versatility to go big or small. Also, Boeheim will be closely watching Devendorf and Harris to see how they handle and distribute the ball in comparison to Wright. These early games will go a long way in determining playing time later in the season.

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