To suggest that the Orange have experienced a roller coaster preseason would be an understatement, as head coach Jim Boeheim has sought to meld an exciting but inexperienced roster into a winning unit. Factor in a trio of season-ending injuries and an unexpected roster defection, and the deck might seem insurmountably stacked against Boeheim’s fledgling club. Despite these factors, Boeheim has engineered a 10-3 record through non-conference play, good enough to be sitting at #14 in the RPI by the time St. Johns enters the Carrier Dome on Wednesday evening.
However, team optimism and confidence were in abundant supply during the pair of practices OrangeNation observed last week. The coaching staff put the Syracuse players through a light workout on December 27th, the focus of which was for the players to get back into the swing of things following a short holiday layoff. With several assistant coaches [and a couple of players] notably absent, Boeheim led the team through a spirited scrimmage, followed by several fundamental drills and a lengthy bout of conditioning sprints.
On December 28th, the team got back to business. With the full compliment of players and coaches returning to the floor, the Orange spent a significant portion of practice engaged in scout team preparations for Sunday’s game against Northeastern and the Big East opener the following week. The demeanor of the coaching staff was more urgent than on the previous day, and the players followed suit by stepping up their effort and intensity accordingly.
Several things were evident in both practices. First, this team has a remarkably high level of camaraderie. Watching the players in action, it is obvious that they genuinely like one another, they enjoy playing together, and that they have an outstanding relationship with the coaching staff. This enthusiasm was even evident during the tedium of practice drills. Although the team worked hard and had no trouble focusing at the appropriate times, there was still a lot of interactive banter, smiles, and good humor throughout both practices—all signs of good team chemistry.
Second, it is apparent that the team will not be able to compensate for the loss of junior guard Eric Devendorf by inserting any one player into the lineup. Instead, coach Boeheim and his staff will draw upon the talents of multiple players to help offset the loss of Devendorf’s productivity. For example, freshman guard Antonio “Scoop” Jardine is able to partially offset the loss of Devendorf’s playmaking aptitude, in terms of getting teammates involved in the offense. Both Jardine and sophomore swingman Paul Harris bring a little more size and defensive intensity to the shooting guard position. With the emergence of junior college transfer Kristof Ongenaet as a viable member of the rotation, Boeheim is able to field a bigger, more defensive-minded lineup. Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—while it would be impossible for any of the bench players to replicate Devendorf’s scoring / outside shooting prowess, the injury means that superstar frosh Jonny Flynn and Donte’ Greene are thrust into more prominent roles as the team’s primary scorers—which might prove to be beneficial to the Orange in the long run. While relying upon freshmen is generally not a formula for success at the Big East level, Flynn and Greene have proven repeatedly throughout the preseason portion of the schedule that they are atypically gifted freshmen.
Jonny Flynn: Perhaps the most important player on the team, Flynn provides a playmaking dimension that this team has lacked for nearly a decade. With Devendorf out of the lineup, this is Flynn’s team. His shooting touch is amazing for such an inexperienced player, and he is rapidly becoming more assertive with his dribble. He has gained the confidence in his handle to get anywhere on the floor that he wants, whenever he wants. Flynn has amazing body control, and more importantly has an unerring capability to finish once he gets to the rim. He made several indescribable plays during practice that needed to be seen to be believed.
Antonio Jardine: As much as I dislike Jardine’s shooting mechanics [more about this momentarily], I like his playmaking aptitude. Although not a pure point, Jardine knows where and how to deliver the ball to his teammates [especially to former prep teammate Rick Jackson], and he consistently looks to get others involved. That said, he was turnover prone throughout both practices. Although his shooting form is abysmal, he showed the capability to knock down mid-range jumpshots—ranging out to approximately 17 feet. Sunday's game against Northeastern proved to be his breakout performance, but he still has yet to consistently demonstrate that he can hit long range shots during games—a dimension that the team could use to help keep opposing defenses honest.
Paul Harris: Harris practices the way he plays—hard. He consistently hustles and demonstrates quiet intensity, but is quick to smile and laugh with his teammates and coaches at the appropriate times. Harris continues to work hard on his mid-range jump shot, and the gains [in practice] are evident; he is a much improved shooter compared to last year at this time. The improvement can be attributed to an off-season change in his shooting mechanics, with his release point / follow through resulting in better ball rotation during his shot. For a player with his versatility, Harris is a bit more turnover prone than I would like to see—I attribute that to his exuberance to make plays. As he gains experience, he will temper the tendency to force, thereby eliminating many unnecessary mistakes.
Donte’ Greene: Greene is an offensive dynamo. He is not far behind Kevin Durant at the same stage. He shoots well, and is showing improved ability to create his own shot off of the bounce. Greene needs to spend more time on the low block, as he has a tendency to float on the perimeter on offense. Also, there were several instances where he would begin to head upcourt after taking a shot, rather than following his shot for potential rebounding opportunities. I was impressed by how hard he pushed himself during conditioning drills—he was running hard at the end of practice.
Arinze Onuaku: Onuaku is a beast on the offensive end. He finishes strong with either hand, and has a knack for snaring offensive rebounds on the secondary break. I would like to see him show better judgment about when not to force—as there were several instances where he looked to bull his way to the rim [a tendency that has been shown in games, often to detrimental effect], often spinning into double teams or committing what would be obvious offensive fouls in games. His free throw shooting is abysmal; even in practice, he wasn’t making them consistently.
Rick Jackson: The more I see of Jackson, the more I like him. He has an innate feel for what to do with the ball on the low post, and for where the ball is going to go when it comes off of the rim. Consequently, he always seems to be in the right position to make a play. There was one practice sequence where he snared an offensive rebound on the right block, and immediately turned outward and quickly got the ball out to guard, beating a drop-down double team before the trap could be executed. It was a play that would go largely unnoticed, but it demonstrated the instinctive feel Jackson has for playing the post. I suspect that in a similar situation, Arinze might have tried to overpower his man to power up a shot. When Jackson adds strength and a mid-range shot to compliment his low post offense, he is going to be a fantastic player for SU.
Kristof Ongenaet: Ongenaet is the beneficiary of a significant dosage of playing time due to the Devendorf injury that he otherwise might not have gotten, and to his credit he has begun to deliver. He hustles consistently, and really displays a knack for rebounding in traffic. What was most impressive was how hard he pushed himself during the team’s conditioning drills. Ongenaet is clearly an athletically gifted player who runs effortlessly. He won more than 90% of the sprints—sometimes by as much as a full lap over the next closest player. On offense—although he didn’t take bad shots, his jumpshot simply was not falling during the two practices I observed, despite the fact that he was often wide open. If he sticks to what he does well—running the floor, rebounding, hustling, scrapping on defense—he’ll continue to gain confidence and be a valuable contributor for this team.
Justin Thomas: Thomas worked very hard during the scrimmage portion of the practices [he had a tough assignment—defending Flynn], but I was disappointed with his effort during the conditioning drills; he didn’t push himself at all. The team may need him to provide a few minutes per game spelling Flynn, but don’t look for him to provide any scoring from the perimeter. His jumpshot is flawed, and he has a weird elbow hitch that makes his shot inconsistent, even from 15-17 feet. Thomas understands his role, and played within his limitations during the two practices I observed.
Sean Williams: It’s too bad that depleted team depth is forcing Williams into action this season, because I think that he would have benefited tremendously by a redshirt year. He plays hard, but is physically overmatched going against Onuaku and Jackson in the low post. Two positives that I observed that make me optimistic that Williams could emerge as a player down the road: one, he catches the ball extremely well. Once he has it, he keeps the ball high and looks to dunk with aplomb. Second, I was impressed with his shooting form during free throw drills—for a big man, he has an outstanding release / follow through, suggesting that he might develop a reliable mid-range jump shot down the road.
Mike Williams: Williams’s role in practice is to work hard, hustle, and push the scholarship players, and he did all of those things in the practices that I observed. He ran hard during conditioning drills [he and Ongenaet stood out in that regard], he listened attentively to the coaches, and he never seemed to take a play off. He already seems to get along well with his teammates, despite being on the team for only a short time—perhaps attributable to his western New York connection to Flynn / Harris. Williams showed better shooting form and range than I expected. If Boeheim could somehow infuse Williams’s offensive game into Thomas, we’d have an outstanding player.