Syracuse Tips Off Against St. Francis

Well, this is it. The seemingly never-ending off season has finally passed, preseason practices have wrapped up, and two exhibition games are in the books. Now is the time when things start to matter, and for Syracuse fans suffering through a disappointing football season, the timing is perfect. The Orange are back, and the fanbase is cautiously optimistic about what the season may bring.

Of course, this year more than any in recent Orange history hinges on one word: "If."

IF: Josh Wright can get his game and confidence to come around and learn to direct a half court offense, and finally start knocking down a few jumpers.

IF: Terrence Roberts and Mookie Watkins can harness their considerable athletic abilities, refine their games, and learn that with their combination of strength, speed, and agility they could be a dominant duo on the collegiate level.

IF: Demetris Nichols can finally achieve, and maintain, complete confidence in his game. Nichols, a player with obvious athletic ability and skill at both the offensive and defensive ends of the court, has all of the tools to be an All-Conference player except for one: confidence. It is now or never for Nichols, Roberts, and Mookie.

IF: Paul Harris can be the impact frosh that so many expect. Most casual fans are making the mistake of thinking Harris will be Melo v2.0, but that is not what this team needs and it is not what he can provide. His stat line from the CSULA game is precisely what this team needs from Paul Harris this year…8-12 points, good work on the boards, and some assists and steals, in addition to just being a defensive pest and team leader in general. What Paul brings to the table is an attitude that certain players (re: Mookie, Nichols) need to look at and emulate.

IF: Matty Gorman, Andy Rautins, and Mike Jones can prove to be a reliable trio off the bench. At this point, the Orange have five starters with Harris as more or less 5-B, so it falls on this talented trio to provide some punch off the bench. Everyone knows Gorman can score, but he needs to board and provide a presence inside with Arinze Onuaku out for the year. Everyone knows Rautins can shoot and pass the rock, now he just needs to show that he can be a reliable contributor in whatever minutes he gets. Mike Jones—WHO?!—comes in as a player who could potentially chip in with a little bit of everything. Let's see if he can do what the fans expect, and if Boeheim gives him the opportunity.

IF: The Orange can adequately replace the legend himself, Mr. Gerry McNamara. Between Eric Devendorf's offensive abilities and Paul Harris' toughness and leadership, there are certainly pieces in place to make up for the loss of the mad bomber from Scranton.

So those are the big questions heading into the 2006-07 season. Any combination of those questions being answered would result in a good season. All of them being answered may just bring about a great one.

Tonight, Orange fans hope to get those answers when Syracuse hosts the Terriers of St. Francis College (NY) in the Black Coaches Association Invitational at the Carrier Dome.

While the exhibition season is technically over, there are few who expect the Orange's three games in the BCA to be much more than exhibitions themselves. The Terriers may present more of a challenge than CSULA, but the result should be very similar. Of the team's present at the BCA, only Penn should give the Orange any trouble.

St. Francis returns only five letter-winners from last season on a roster dotted with freshmen and junior college transfers. Two of the team's top three scorers are gone, as is the team's leading rebounder and three-point shooter. The key returner is Allan Sheppard (6'5", 200), a senior from NYC who led the Terriers with an 11.6 point-per-game average last season. Sheppard also pulled down 4.8 boards and knocked down 49% from the field, though he struggled a bit from the free throw line, hitting 65% of his attempts. For the year, he knocked down only 5-of-15 triples, preferring to do his damage from closer in.

If Sheppard is the team's most valuable returning player, junior Jamaal Womack is probably second on the list. Womack (5'8", 170) runs the show for the Terriers, and was tied for fourth on the team in scoring and first in assists, averaging 5.9 points and 2.7 dimes per game. Womack hit just 34% from the field and 32% from beyond the arc while hitting 73% of his free throw attempts last season.

Also returning are junior James St. Robert (6'8", 230) and senior Ruandy Melo (6'0", 160). Like Womack, and the Terriers in general last season, neither St. Robert nor Melo put up many points. St. Robert averaged 5.9 points and 3.4 boards per game while pulling off the very Syracuse-like feat of being a big man with a better field goal percentage (54%) than free throw percentage (49%). Melo averaged 4.4 points last season and knocked down 35% of his triples.

As for the newcomers, it's difficult to tell who will and who won't make an impact in the St. Francis rotation. The most likely candidate looks to be Robert Hines (6'5", 250), an undersized post player who nevertheless put up 19.8 points, 9.7 boards, 4.5 assists, and 2.6 steals per game over the course of his two seasons at Arizona Western Community College, numbers good enough to earn him JUCO All-American honors.

Marcus Williams (6'3", 220, and as far as I can ascertain no criminal record) is another JUCO import, along with being a high school teammate of Terrence Roberts at St. Anthony's, who should contribute for the Terriers. Along with being named a preseason JUCO All-American, Williams posted solid numbers of 12ppg, 5rpg, 3.5apg, and 2.4spg for Globe International, which was ranked No. 12 in the NJCAA.

Otis Campbell (6'2", 215), previously of Hutchinson Community College and the Mayberry Town Jail, is also a former teammate of Roberts at St. Anthony's. The junior guard put up nine points per game and knocked down 34 triples for Hutchinson.

One freshman who looks poised to see some playing time for the Terriers is David Burton (6'5", 220), an swingman who spent three years at Neumann-Goretti before transferring to Lutheran Christian Academy for his senior season. At Lutheran Christian, Burton earned spots in the Philly All-City Classic All-Star Game and also participated in the Catholic League All-Star Game after averaging 18 points, 14 boards, five dishes, and two steals per game as a senior.

The Terriers don't have tremendous size, with their tallest returning player being St. Robert at 6'8" and their tallest player overall being Palm Beach Community College transfer Bassith Yessoufou (6'9", 218), meaning that Roberts and Watkins will have a noticeable advantage in the post. One of the team's biggest players, Sami Pekkola (6'7", 220) has a tendency to float more toward the perimeter than toward the paint, with 50 of his 82 field goal attempts coming from deep. The junior from Finland hit 30% of his long range attempts.

Notable team stats for St. Francis include their 318-411 assist-to-turnover ratio, as well as their collective 41% shooting from the field. They were a respectable 34% from beyond the arc, but 93 of their 175 total three pointers graduated with the departed Christian Brown and Sean Dantzler. Womack leads the returnees with 24 triples a season ago. St. Francis was out-rebounded 36 to 34.5 last season.

The Terriers struggled last year with a 10-17 record, including a 7-11 record in the NEC. They were 3-6 out of conference, losing by an average of 17 points to noteworthy opponents St. John's (64-50), Pittsburgh (79-58), and Hofstra (73-57). Terrier fans can be thrilled with their six-game home winning streak; however, St. Francis was just 2-12 away from home last season, and finished the game on a three-game skid that kept the team out of the NEC Tournament.

Last season was the first for Coach Brian Nash, and it came with the expected struggles of a first year coach at a small program. The Terriers are expected to take another step in the right direction this year with the returns of Sheppard and Womack and the talents of newcomers like Hines, Williams, and Burton. Still, don't expect St. Francis to finish much more than in the middle of the pack in the NEC, and certainly don't expect a Bucknell-style early season upset of the Orange.

What you should expect is another learning experience for a team desperately searching for its identity in the Post-GMAC world. The team still has plenty of kinks to work out, and even more questions to answer. It will be interesting to see if the team continues to employ man-to-man, and to watch how Josh Wright develops—or doesn't develop—in the early season. An opening night game in the Dome against a mid-level NEC team should provide for plenty of time for the youngsters to take the floor, so Orange fans hoping to see the future in Harris and—WHO!?—Mike Jones will not go home disappointed.

In addition, the game will give JB the opportunity to get Devin Brennan-McBride some playing time if a redshirt truly is not in his future, and Andy Rautins should continue to see his role increase in hopes of getting him ready for the Big East season, where his three-point shooting and smart decision making will be needed.

It's wise not to take any opponent lightly, no matter the circumstances, but anything less than a 15-20 point victory would be utterly surprising and a bit disappointing. Even with JB getting the opportunity to try new combinations, defenses, etc, the Orange firepower, size, and athleticism is far too much for the Terriers.

Tonight's game may not answer all of the questions that Syracuse fans have. We may not discover much about this team that games against Bryant and CSULA haven't already told us. We may also be disappointed when we learn that the halftime cage match between Harris and Chuck Norris has been cancelled for fear of bringing about the Apocalypse. What this game is is a prime opportunity for the young kids to show what they can do. It's a great tune-up game for the Orange, a team which clearly has a few flaws that need polishing.

Still, tonight's game signifies something far more crucial than all of that: the start of a new Syracuse Orange basketball season.

Hallelujah.

Prediction: Syracuse 91, St. Francis 70


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