Rather than considering this the 2006-07 season, many SU fans may label this year 1 AG (after Gerry). For 4 years, Gerry McNamara was the face of Syracuse basketball. The only player in SU history to win a National Championship, compete in two Sweet 16s, and win two Big East Tournament titles, Gerry will be sorely missed for his tenacity, clutch shooting, and warrior's mentality.
Regardless, Boeheim is already on record as saying he'd be "very disappointed" if this team didn't do well. This is a bold statement considering that a mere 7 months ago he was torching reporters from the Daily Orange for daring to suggest that McNamara was overrated. Boeheim's famous "Not ten [expletive deleted] games" defense could be interpreted as a show of undying support for his gritty point guard, but at the same time it was also an indictment of his inconsistent cast of underclassmen (particularly seniors Terrence Roberts, Darryl Watkins, and Demetris Nichols).
Now, without McNamara, Boeheim is faced with basically that same team that wouldn't have won "ten [expletive deleted] games", only now he's added freshmen Paul Harris, Mike Jones, and Devin Brennan-McBride. Does this trio singlehandedly account for Boeheim's optimism, or does he expect big things from the returning players? Or is it simply a matter of the Big East losing so much talent from last season, that he expects his returning players to step into the upper echelon of the league?
Who's Back? History tells us that Boeheim loves experienced teams. The 2003 National Championship notwithstanding, both of his other Final Four clubs featured multiple strong senior leaders like Greg Monroe/Howard Triche (1987), and John Wallace/Lazarus Sims (1996). This year's squad certainly doesn't lack experience. Nichols, Watkins, and Roberts combine to form the team's starting frontcourt, and between the three of them, have more than 110 career starts.
A forth returning starter is fiery sophomore shooting guard Eric Devendorf, who started most of last year after supplanting since-departed-SG-turned-pugilist Louie McCroskey. Devendorf, a member of the '05-06 Big East All-Newcomers team, is expected to step into the roll of go-to scorer. His 30 point outburst in SU's first exhibition game against Bryant proves that he's ready to assume that role.
Also returning is speedster point guard Josh Wright, senior power forward Matt Gorman, and sophomore sniper Andy Rautins. Sophomore center Arinze Onuaku returns as well, but he has been derailed by knee problems and it is unclear whether he will play at all this season.
On paper, this looks like a pretty solid nucleus. There are three returning double-digit scorers in Nichols, Devendorf, and Roberts. Watkins provides an intimidating defensive presence and is the league's top returning shot blocker. Wright gives the team impressive open court speed, and Rautins and Gorman can provide perimeter shooting and a different look for the opponent.
However, there seems to be something about this bunch that has prevented it from gelling in the past. After all, Boeheim's "Not ten [expletive deleted] games" statement rang true in the NCAA tourney when an injured McNamara spent the last ten minutes of the game against Texas A&M on the bench, watching his SU career end in a disappointing first round loss.
It hardly seems worth repeating the various holes in most of these players' games. Nichols has had well documented cold streaks, Roberts and Watkins sometimes collect fouls (and miss dunks) at an alarming rate, Devendorf has had difficulties creating opportunities for others, and Wright has struggled to show that he is capable of running a cohesive offense. Maybe experience is the great equalizer here, and each of these players will have learned from past transgressions. On the other hand, the seniors have been at SU for three years and have had plenty of opportunities to develop consistency.
The early returns from practice and the exhibitions indicate that the returning players have all had positive moments. More importantly, there seems to be a very positive "aura" about the team. There was no mistaking that the last few SU squads were McNamara's teams, and it is indeed possible that the seniors maybe feel less pressure performing without the shadow of GMac's legend looming over them.
Who's New? The obvious answer here is Paul Harris, the most bally-hooed incoming freshman at Syracuse since a kid by the name of Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to a National Championship a couple years back. In many regards, Harris might be the answer to the question of why Boeheim expects so much from his returning players. Everywhere that Harris has played, he has earned a reputation of making his teammates better.
Not to be overlooked is fellow freshman SF Mike Jones, who has turned in two excellent showings in the exhibitions. Jones has looked every bit as good as Harris on the offensive side of the ball (if not better). He has clearly demonstrated his ability to play immediately, scoring 9.5 ppg in the exhibitions while knocking down 3 trifectas.
Boeheim alluded to Mike Jones (Who?) as a top 20-30 freshman in this year's Blue Ribbon yearbook, and given his 17-point performance at the Jordan All-Star game in April and 14-point showing against Cal State Los Angeles on Sunday, that's not a stretch. He is a smooth athlete with a well developed mid-range game. We all know that Boeheim loves experience, but if Nichols falters this year, the 6-7 Jones may be a capable fill-in. (By the way, the over/under on the Mike Jones "Who?" chant going from somewhat quirky/clever to downright annoying is two games).
Getting back to Harris – this kid is a classic "glue" player. He's the kind of player who just knows when and how to make a play – whether it's a heady assist, a tough defensive stop, a key basket, or a big rebound, he just has the knack for getting the job done at the right time. Considering how last year's team had a penchant for standing around and watching McNamara try to make the big play, Harris might be a godsend. His versatile do-it-all attitude means that others will be involved when it comes time to make that "play".
At 6-4, 220+ pounds, Harris is a unique physical specimen. His physique is immediately Big East-ready. He has the toughness and tenacity of a power forward, combined with the wing slashing ability of a small forward, and the court vision of a point guard. His greatest attribute is his competitiveness and desire to win. He has been the leader of every high school and AAU team he has played on, and if there is anyone who can provide the guidance and leadership to maximize the seniors' talents, it's Harris. Through two exhibitions, Harris has scored 8 ppg, grabbed 8.5 rbg, dished out 3.5 apg, and played exceptional on-the-ball defense.
The final newcomer is Canadian Devin Brennan-McBride, a 6-9 PF. Brennan-McBride has wowed a lot of practice-goers with his natural athletic abilities, but at the same time his skill set seems to be far from complete. He is an explosive leaper and surprisingly quick end-to-end. Speculation was that he would redshirt, but with Onuaku out for who-knows-how-long, look for him to suit up this season. He has played very well in limited minutes so far, making all 4 of his free throw attempts and knocking down a few short-range jumpers.
The Rotation: The first four starters were obvious before practice even began. Josh Wright will get the nod for the last starting slot, at least in the early going. Wright is the team's only true point guard, so he will be given the opportunity to cement that role in the pre-conference games. If Wright should fail, Boeheim may move to a point-guard-by-committee approach with Harris and Devendorf starting in the backcourt. Wright has handed out 15 assists already, but has struggled with his decision-making and scoring.
With Wright in the starting lineup, that immediately makes Harris the team's sixth man. Do not underestimate the power of bringing a player like this off the bench. Harris will give Boeheim instant flexibility, the likes of which he has not had at his disposal for quite some time. Harris can sub in the backcourt at the PG or SG positions, and he can also rotate into the frontcourt if needed. Against smaller teams, look for Harris to play the small forward position, with Boeheim inverting the offense to use him as a post-up threat.
Further versatility will be provided by Rautins and Gorman. Rautins gives the Orange a quick-trigger gunner, the type of player who gives you instant feedback on whether he is "on" or "off". On Sunday, he was clearly en feugo, knocking down 4 jumpers in a span of 5 minutes during the second half. Gorman can come in to bring the opponent's big guy out of the paint and open up driving lanes for Harris and Devendorf. He has also shown improved mobility and a willingness to defend (13 blocks in 2 games). The wildcard is Mike Jones, whose playing time will largely be determined by the fortunes of Demetris Nichols. Jones has the size to be an effective rebounder from the wing of the zone and seems to have a very high basketball IQ.
Besides depth at point guard, the only thing that is really lacking is a back-up at the center position. Without Onuaku available to throw around his 250+ pounds, both Terrance Roberts and Matt Gorman need to be prepared to play some minutes in the middle. Roberts is the likely to be the first backup in this slot. Again, expect to see the Orange to go "small" a lot this year, because Roberts and Watkins have a penchant for foulry, and there will be times when one or the other won't be on the court. Gorman has responded well in the early going and will need to continue this level of play against higher quality opponents.
Please join us tomorrow for Part of the Season Preview.