Call me crazy, but I'm the type of person who gets just as excited about the season's first exhibition game as I would for a 'Cuse Final Four game. Yeah, I might be a little sick, but to me there is nothing better than catching a glimpse of the future of SU hoops, as Boeheim is notoriously liberal with his substitution patterns for at least the first two exhibitions. And, these games are also the games where you might catch a glimmer of the promise ahead, such as in 1996 when John Wallace exploded for nearly 40 points against the Australian National team, or when Carmelo Anthony took off running with 38 points the first time his feet hit the Carrier Dome floor.
So the big questions:
1) What's in store today? The Orange take on the Golden Knights of the College of Saint Rose, a small Division II school located in Albany. Head coach Brian Beaury has put together a nice little program there, guiding his charges to 10 DII NCAA appearances over the last 16 years. While the Golden Knights probably won't pose as much of a challenge for the Orange, they will offer a chance for Boeheim to test out various rotations and game strategies.
It all starts with the returning core of Eric Devendorf, Paul Harris, Arinze Onuaku, and Josh Wright. (I'd add Andy Rautins and Devin Brennan-McBride to this list if Andy wasn't out for the season and Devin had any serious experience). This core offers contributions in the way of scoring (Devendorf), defense and tenacity (Harris), interior strength (Onuaku), and speed (Wright). It is obviously a good group to start with, but without some serious contributions from the freshmen, this year's Orange team won't be going anywhere. There simply aren't enough experienced bodies to carry the team.
But what a freshman class this is... If the young Orange can live up to their recruiting press clippings, this group could make a serious difference as early as this season. It is Boeheim's first incoming class in over twenty years to feature 2 McDonald's All-Americans (1986 - Derrick Coleman/Stevie Thompson). Donte Greene is expected to start from day one, and it is a safe bet that fellow Burger-man Johnny Flynn will crack the starting lineup before Big East play begins. Rick Jackson will also be heavily counted on for minutes in the middle and Antonio "Scoop" Jardine will get a chance to showcase his skills with Rautins on the shelf for the full year.
2) Who starts? Harris, Devendorf, and Greene are givens. Look for Boeheim to go with experience in the middle and start Arinze Onuaku. That leaves the PG position... does Boeheim again lean towards experience and give the nod to Josh Wright, or does he turn the keys to the Caddy over to newcomer Johnny Flynn? This is a potentially dangerous decision, the type where Boeheim really has to earn his big bucks. In my opinion, there is no way that Flynn doesn't crack the starting lineup before the season's over. Wright has reportedly improved a lot in the off-season, particularly in terms of his outside shot, but even so Flynn is a much more dynamic PG who has the potential to be head and shoulders above Wright in terms of playmaking ability. Wright has repeatedly been asked to develop a pass first approach, while Flynn entered SU with that "innate" skill of finding teammates that all great point guards have.
So why is this such a huge decision? Well, I keep thinking back to the 2005-06 season and the Louie McCroskey/Eric Devendorf saga. The embittered McCroskey injected a venomous feel to the lockerroom after losing his starting position and the team never seemed to hit its stride and would have missed the NCAAs entirely if not for Gerry McNamara's BET heroics. The thought of having a senior malcontent (Wright) on the bench after losing his starting position mid-season is not a pleasant one.
Still, just handing the position to a freshman isn't a great idea unless he's really EARNED it. Hence, tough decision! If I were beating, I'd say JB goes with Wright as the starter for the first few games. The info I'm getting before the game is that Flynn will start, but this seems to be outside of Boeheim's character. In either event, it is going to be very important for Boeheim to communicate to both of these players what their expected roles for the '07-08 season are. Any sort of confusion here could be damaging to team chemistry.
3) What defense? For today, the answer is easy. Man to man. Boeheim always doles out a steady diet of man to man during the exhibition games. With great on-ball defenders like Flynn and Harris, this year's Orange team could be dangerous in a pressing man to man type of attack. Boeheim also spent the summer with Duke's Coach K, a master of designing man to man defenses. Still, don't look for JB to go crazy with the man to man - the zone will be back as soon as the Orange face tough competition. Hopefully the team will have better balance between the two defenses throughout the season.
4) Who leads? Last year's team never really managed to settle on a cohesive team identity. Players like Demetris Nichols and Terrence Roberts tried a hand at their own brand of leadership, but it never really seemed to sync with everyone on the floor. In reality, "leadership" really comes down to making the big play at the right time. This year, Paul Harris has reportedly assumed the mantel of team leader, a position that he could never quite grasp last year with four seniors on the roster. Harris is the type who can lead by example on the court, as he can do a little bit of everything and as such is well suited to "make the big play at the right time", as the big play might not be just scoring a basket. Look for Harris to come into his own this year by taking better care of the ball, improving his shot selection, and improving his passing game. He's not likely to be a bigtime scorer, but look for him to flourish with better weapons around him. I'm projecting an uber-Jaron Brown type of season for Harris at 11-13 ppg, 9 rbg, 2.5-3.5 apg, 2 spg, and 1.0 bs. He'll be the glue that holds this ship together.
5) What can we take from an exhibition? Evaluating players based on exhibition games against undermanned DII schools is often difficult. This is the type of opponent where Harris should be able to go off for huge numbers, but it won't really tell you if he's legitimately improved, as he should be able to easily overpower the Saint Rose players. Likewise Eric Devendorf - everyone knows he can score, the question is can he improve his decision-making in tight, close games? We're not likely to get an answer today.
What we can get a feel for is how prepared the frosh are. In 2003-04, the exhibitions games revealed Demetris Nichols as not particularly game ready (I believe the expression was "deer in the headlights"). You could see that he had the skills, but wasn't ready for the bright lights of the Carrier Dome. Play close attention to see how the frosh react today. The incoming class is surely not lacking for self-assurance, as Flynn, Jardine, Greene, and Jackson all bristled with confidence during the times I saw them play in high school... but this is college ball now and it would be understandable if some of them falter a bit.
The exhibitions are also good indicators of where the team is in terms of overall "chemistry". Do the players look comfortable on the floor? Are they taking the shots and making the defensive plays that Boeheim wants? Who is leading the team from an emotional standpoint? These are important intangibles that can be evaluated in a game that will likely end as a blowout.
The other thing we can take from the exhibition is our first looks at the two other big guys. JUCO transfer Kristoff Ongenaet and freshman import Sean Williams might both see time this year due to the total lack of experience in the middle. Onuaku missed all of last season, so it will be important to see if he can shake off any rust. Expect a lot of fouls between Onuaku and Jackson, which means playing time by necessity for Ongenaet and possibly Williams, depending on whether he is redshirted.
The last thing we can take from an exhibition is... having fun as fans. This is a unique opportunity to see the entire roster in action. There is no pressure to win the game, since it doesn't count in any rankings or RPI calculations. So let's all take a relaxing Sunday afternoon and enjoy our first look at the 2007-08 Syracuse Orange.