Somewhere along the line, someone figured out how to tweak the SU basketball non conference schedule to maximize the team's RPI while minimizing potentially difficult games. For the most part, the bottom #250-325 teams have been replaced with some quality midmajors. This strategy helped SU attain one of the highest rated strength of schedules last year and still manage to avoid a number of losses to non-league teams (Bucknell notwithstanding).
This year's schedule is more of the same, with only two teams guaranteed to finish in the sub 250s (Colgate and St. Francis). The Albany and Binghamton type of games have been replaced with much higher quality mid-majors like Wichita State, Charlotte, Hofstra, UTEP, and Penn. These are all opponents that SU SHOULD beat, but could provide a good challenge nonetheless. The marquee non-conference game is against Oklahoma State in Madison Square Garden.
The season opens with the BCA classic, which is played in a round-robin format, starting with SU vs. St. Francis. The Terriers are coming off a woeful 10-17 and shouldn't provide much resistance, but after that the Orange will play both UTEP and UPenn. UTEP has been pretty tough in Conference USA the last few seasons, and Penn has been a perennial Ivy League power. They will be well coached and patient, so SU will have to be focused right out of the gates.
When it comes to the Big East portion of the schedule, the ‘Cuse gets double dips against Villanova, St. Johns, and Connecticut. ‘Nova lost three key guards from last year's team but returns a lot of talent to go around Curtis Sumpter, the most versatile forward in the league. St. Johns seems to be headed in the right direction with Norm Roberts at the helm, and UConn is always dangerous, even when they have 9 new players on the roster.
The Orange have caught a bit of a break by getting Pitt and Georgetown both at home, although they do have to travel to Louisville. And, there is a trip to the RAC in New Brunswick, where SU ALWAYS struggles with Rutgers. One game that I have highlighted on my calendar is the February 3rd home game against DePaul. SU should have payback in mind after the thrashing they took in Chicago last year. Look for a different result in the Carrier Dome.
There is no denying that the Orange roster includes an intriguing mix of talented athletes, but the team's various flaws are pretty obvious at this point. Here is a list of the key issues (in no particular order) that will need to be addressed for the Orange to have a strong season.
Leadership. Boeheim's previous senior-laden teams have usually had strong leadership, but this year's team is a mystery. Watkins simply doesn't have the personality. Nichols is a questionable choice as team leader because he has constantly struggled through confidence issues. Roberts is the most vocal of the group and seems to be the logical choice, but he has a tendency to make boneheaded decisions and sometimes goes overboard in the "showboating" and "whining to the refs" departments.
Ironically, the logical choice here is freshman Paul Harris, who is one of the most vocal players you'll ever see on the court. He has a tremendous will to win and does a great job of calling out defensive assignments and pumping up his teammates to play to their highest level. However, he is a freshman, so it remains to be seen how his older teammates react to his natural inclination to take on a leadership role. Four seniors thinking about their future after SU might not be so inclined as to follow the lead of a first year player.
Quantity vs. Quality. Winning teams have players that make winning plays. Syracuse has a team full of players who can make plays in the middle of a game, but haven't proven they can make plays when a game is on the line. It pains me to quote former Georgetown head coach John Thompson, but he is very astute when he talks about "quality over quantity" when it come to assessing a player's stat line.
Most coaches would take a combined 35+ points and 20+ rebounds from their starting frontcourt, which is what Boeheim will get from the trio of Roberts, Watkins, and Nichols. However, these numbers will not translate into wins if they are put up without the players making "clutch" plays. Likewise, Eric Devendorf. There is no doubt that he will score a ton of points this year, but will he have the ability to make shots when it counts? He came on strong at the end of last year and made some big plays in the Big East tournament. No one's asking him to be Gerry McNamara, but he'll have to make some big plays for this team to successful. Here's hoping that he does.
Rotations/Roles. This one is pretty much a no-brainer, with two positions bringing forth the most obvious question marks – point guard and center. Josh Wright will begin the season as the team's starting point guard, but will he end it in that role? Can he improve his play to gain Boeheim's confidence? Or will Boeheim switch to a point guard-by-committee rotation with Devendorf and Harris sharing ballhandling responsibilities? If Wright cements the lead guard role, how does Harris fit in the rotation? All are questions with no obvious answer.
That leads to the next question. Who is the backup at the center position? The most likely answer is Roberts, which means that Gorman must be ready to play a lot of minutes, and Nichols will also see some time at the 4. This opens opportunities for Harris and Jones to play in the frontcourt. SU also has Andy Rautins as a dedicated shooter off the bench. Will Boeheim actually go 9 deep this year? History says no, but it may be that his 7th and 8th men off the bench will rotate from game to game, giving the team a little more versatility than in years past.
Identity. Without question, Gerry McNamara was the face of the last few Syracuse teams. He provided a warrior's mentality on the court that was easy for teammates to rally around. With McNamara gone, Boeheim is left with a quartet of seniors who have never seemed able to stamp their signature on a team, a cocky sophomore shooting guard, and some unproven freshmen.
The two players most likely to give SU a much needed jolt of personality are Devendorf and Harris. Devo is the type of player who opponents love to hate, and Harris is the type of player whose toughness can rub off on his teammates. It would be great to see this year's team take on the physicality that Harris brings. Syracuse's national identity is usually reserve for finesse forwards and the 2-3 zong, but wouldn't it be nice to have people identify SU has as a tough, physical, defense-minded team?
The thing that I like best about this team is the overall lineup versatility. This team should be able to play multiple defensives effectively, with Boeheim tailoring the squad on the floor to suit the chosen defense. With Harris in the fold, the team has the "glue" player it was so desperately lacking last year.
Look for the offense to center around Eric Devendorf, my early pick for leading scorer. He can shoot it from the perimeter (see: 8 for 8 from three point range in the Bing Scrimmage and 6-9 against Bryant), drive it to the basket, and score in fastbreak situations. If he can expand his passing game after getting into the teeth of the defense, the SU interior players will be much more dangerous than in years past. Expect Roberts and Nichols to join in him in averaging double figures.
Despite all of Harris's talents, don't expect him to be a huge scorer right off the bat. In high school, much of his offense was predicated on overpowering opponents, and that clearly won't be as easy at the Big East level. Also, his outside shooting needs a lot (and I mean A LOT) of work, so look for his offense to come from transition, putbacks, and attacking the basket. With Nichols, Devendorf, Rautins, Jones, and Gorman holding down the perimeter, Harris won't be asked to shoot much from outside. At this point, the less he shoots from beyond the arc, the better.
This team has the athletes to be an effective defensive team, but in-game concentration, particularly from the big men, has always been a problem. With Harris barking out defensive assignments, that might change. Defensively, Boeheim has promised to play more man-to-man this year. Considering that he usually employs 90+% zone, "more" is a relative term. Does that mean an even 50/50 split, or maybe more like 75% zone/25% man? Regardless of how good the team plays in the man-to-man, don't expect Boeheim to entirely drop the zone. He's a zone coach. Period. End of story.
The key to the season lies in how many of the issues addressed above get resolved in a positive manner. As seen, an awful lot of pressure will be on Harris to deliver in many aspects of the game. This may simply be too much to ask of a first year player. However, if most of the question marks are answered, then this team has the pieces to make a nice run in the NCAA with an Elite-8 (or thereabouts) type of showing. If the team fails to gel, the seniors don't improve, and the leadership void is left unfilled, then this is the type of team that could wind up in the NIT.
I'm thinking that the real answer will fall somewhere in between. Expect to see an interesting team that struggles to find an identity in early games, takes a few mid-season lumps, but then starts to play better towards the end of the year. The seniors all turn in solid, if not spectacular seasons, Devendorf leads the team in scoring, and Harris and Jones both improve as the year wears on, helping to make the Orange an exciting and fun team to watch. I'll predict 22-8 during the regular season with a 9-7 record in league play, followed by 3 total postseason wins to finish at 25-10. It would be nice if the postseason wins came in the NCAA tournament so the team could end a two-year winless streak. We'll have to wait five months to see, but I'm betting it will be worth it.