Men's Basketball Season Preview (Part 1)

The Syracuse Men's Basketball team opens the 2007-08 season on Monday night with a first round Preseason NIT game against the Siena Saints. The game will mark a renewal of sorts, as a new-look Orange squad will attempt to erase some of the bitter memories of a 2006-07 season that never quite managed to live up to expectations.

Recap The '06-07 Syracuse Orange struggled through a rough early season stretch that included non-conference home losses to Wichita State and Drexel. While Boeheim's charges regrouped somewhat and managed to post a 10-6 record in Big East play, their overall resume of 22-10 with a win over eventual Final Four participant Georgetown wasn't enough to gain an invite to the Big Dance. SU went on to advance to the Elite 8 of the NIT, eventually losing on the road to Clemson.

The painful loss to brought the end of the careers of seniors Demetris Nichols, Darryl "Mookie" Watkins, Terrence Roberts, and Matt Gorman. While Nichols blossomed into an all-league performer in his senior year, the legacy of the remaining trio was one of unfulfilled promise. The returning players and incoming class hope to inject new life into a program that has failed to register an NCAA tournament win in 3 seasons, the longest dry spell of Boeheim's career.

Roster

The Veterans

Despite the loss of the aforementioned seniors, four players with meaningful playing experience return. The duo of Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris gives Jim Boeheim a strong cornerstone to build around, while Arinze Onuaku and Josh Wright both figure to feature prominently in the mix. Devendorf had an up-and-down season last year but proved to be a dynamic scorer at times. It would be a major surprise if he were not one of the two leading scorers on the team. The biggest thing that Devendorf has to work on is consistency, as the Orange will not be able to afford a midseason meltdown as he had last year.

Paul Harris looks to improve upon last year's rookie season when he averaged 9 points and 7 rebounds. "Do-It-All" Paul couldn't quite live up to his nickname last year, as his shooting touch left a gaping hole in his otherwise well-rounded game. With Nichols gone, Harris will slide into the frontcourt and take over as the team's de facto emotional leader.

Perhaps the most important returning player is Arinze Onuaku, who will be asked to anchor the interior for the Orange. Onuaku is a redshirt sophomore who missed all of last year due to injury, but he appears to have regained his mobility. His conditioning, never the greatest even when he was healthy in 05-06, will be a big concern. The Big O (part deux) brings a completely different playing style than the departed Mookie Watkins, one that should mesh better with the physical styles of Paul Harris and Johnny Flynn.

Wright's role in 07-08 is still unclear, as he missed the two exhibition games due to an ankle injury. With the way Johnny Flynn has been playing, it is expected that Wright will begin the season coming off the bench. Junior Andy Rautins, who would bring some much-needed outside shooting, will miss this year after tearing his ACL while playing for Team Canada this summer. Sophomore Devin Brennan-McBride began the preseason practices with conditioning issues and is not likely to see much playing time once the Big East starts.

The Young'ins

Boeheim welcomes a huge class that includes five freshmen and one junior college transfer. Early indications show that this is SU's best incoming class since the National Championship year of 2002-03. While Donte Greene and Johnny Flynn are the marquee headliners, the class also boasts tremendous depth. Former high school teammates Rick Jackson and Scoop Jardine bring needed skills, Belgium import Kristof Ongenaet has impressed in the exhibitions, and giant freshman Sean Williams has shown flashes of longterm potential during the preseason practices.

Donte Greene is likely to be the most celebrated of the new players, due to the fact that he brings a complete offensive game that is likely to help him compete with Eric Devendorf as the team's leading scorer. While Greene might garner the most attention, it is Johnny Flynn who is likely to have the biggest impact on the team's overall success. Last year's team suffered from a serious lack of playmaking and reliable ballhandling; most Orange fans hope that Flynn will turn this weaknesses into a strength.

Rick Jackson also figures to see some significant playing time. Jackson was a demon on the glass against LeMoyne, hauling in 16 rebounds in limited action. He and Onuaku will trade minutes in the middle, making for an extremely young rotation of power players. Expect to see JUCO transfer Ongenaet get some important minutes simply out of necessity, as foul trouble is often a problem for Boeheim's young interior players. Devin Brennan-McBride may also see limited minutes in this capacity. Sean Williams appears to be at least a year away from contributing, so redshirting might be his best option.

The final member of the recruiting class is Antonio "Scoop" Jardine, a 6-2 widebody guard whose game bares some eerie similarities to former PG Billy Edelin. Jardine has a quirky midrange shot that seems to find the bottom of the net despite his odd release, and he can be very effective running the break. With the current roster, Jardine would be best served to concentrate on distributing the ball, but his heady gamesmanship ensures that he will eventually become a mainstay in the 'Cuse rotation. Whether that comes this year or in the near future depends largely on how Josh Wright performs. If Wright can cut down on the ballhandling mistakes that he committed so frequently last winter, Scoop's PT will likely be limited to pre-Big East games.

Strengths

Athleticism and versatility is the first thing that springs to mind. Harris, Flynn, and Greene are all dynamic physical specimens who offer great fullcourt speed, excellent agility and superb lateral and vertical quickness. On paper, it appears the '07-08 team will be built for offense: fans can look forward to a much more balanced offensive attack with multiple players averaging double digits in the scoring column. Much of the team's offensive success lies on the shoulders of Johnny Flynn. He will be given the first opportunity to lead the Orange attack and ensure that his teammates get enough touches to stay focused and exert maximum effort.

Speaking of effort, there is no lack of it from Mr. Harris. Expect his relentless nature to wear off on teammates, particularly on the defensive end. While the interior defense is unproven, the squad has the type of perimeter quickness to disrupt opposing playmakers with Harris and Flynn leading the way in this department. It is not often that an intangible is considered a strength, but expect "energy" to one of Syracuse's calling cards in 2007-08.

In terms of versatility, the forward combination of Harris and Greene offers a unique match-up nightmare for opposing teams. Put your biggest player on Harris to limit his effectiveness near the basket and you open yourself up to Greene shooting over smaller defenders. If you use your height to guard Greene, he can put the ball on the deck and beat slower big men, while Harris can now overpower smaller defenders in the post. Add in two interior players in Onuaku and Jackson who already have more natural offensive skills than either Roberts or Watkins developed in 4 years on the hill. Then, on the wings you have Johnny Flynn's all-around floor game and Eric Devendorf's ability to get into the paint on virtually any defender. Whereas last year's offense consisted almost entirely of jumpers from Nichols and freelance forays from Devendorf, this year's team should be able to throw multiple looks at opposing defenses.

Weaknesses

The first worry is of course youth and inexperience. Boeheim's young teams have ranged from stellar successes (2003) to frustrating disappointments (1997). The talent upgrade should help mitigate the inexperience factor, but that doesn't mean it will go away entirely. We've already seen some of the effects of youth in the exhibition against St. Rose: Greene going from unstoppable superstar to innocent bystander and Scoop Jardine and Paul Harris making questionable passing decisions. Until Flynn takes complete ownership of the PG position, ballhandling will continue to be a concern. Despite his many talents, almost all freshmen eventually make freshmen mistakes...

The other major concerns are interior play (especially on the defensive end) and consistent outside shooting. The loss of Rautins as a perimeter specialist really hurts; his shooting would have opened things up for Devendorf and Harris going to the basket and Onuaku and Jackson operating in the post. Without him, the likely leading trifecta threats are Greene and Devendorf. Eric is a streaky shooter who can be deadly at times, but he's really at his best when he's attacking the basket. Greene has shot lights out in the exhibitions, hitting just under 50% from deep, but freshman shooters are notoriously inconsistent and also have to adjust to playing a much longer season than they played in high school. In addition, to you really want your 6-10 superstar forward to limit his game to exclusively jump shooting? Some help may be on the way though - in the second exhibition game against LeMoyne, Flynn showed he could bury the three and Josh Wright is reportedly shooting the ball much better in practices.

With regards to the interior, the Big East is notoriously rough on young players. First off, the players need to adjust to the physicality and constant night-in, night-out pounding. Second, it takes time to learn all the subtleties of Boeheim's zone, so foul trouble from freshman and sophomore power players is a virtual way of life. Say what you want about Roberts, Nichols, and Watkins, but replacing a starting frontcourt that played over 90 minutes a game has me worried. These guys combined for 21 boards a game and blocked nearly 200 shots on the season. Neither Onuaku nor Jackson is likely to come close to blocking and altering the number of shots that Watkins did. Also keep in mind that Onuaku has only 115 minutes of Big East play under his belt, which is about the equivalent of 3 games for Mookie last year. That's a heck of a lot of game experience for the young frontcourt to make up.

Join us tomorrow for part II of the season preview.

 


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