Mar 20, 2014; Buffalo, NY, USA; Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim and forward Rakeem Christmas (25) during the game against the Western Michigan Broncos in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Key Returners Must Step Up to Help Syracuse Orange Avoid a Letdown Season

The Syracuse Orange took the ACC by storm last season despite not winning the conference. The Orange were an unstoppable juggernaut for majority of the year which included a 25-0 start to the season.

This season’s projections are not as high for Orange due to the NBA departures of Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant. Head Coach Jim Boeheim will be in rebuilding mode as he looks to replace the production of three of his top four scorers. Syracuse lost roughly 61% of last season’s total offense. In addition, this will be the third consecutive season that the Orange will have a new starting point guard. Despite all this, Syracuse has enough depth and talent to compete with other powerhouses. But in order for Syracuse to make a deep tournament run in March, there are some adjustments that must be addressed.

Syracuse will have a new floor general this season. Freshman Kaleb Joseph will most likely run the show in the Carrier Dome. Joseph has a more aggressive style of play than his crafty predecessors Michael Carter-Williams & Tyler Ennis. Joseph is most effective when he’s attacking defenses off the dribble. Syracuse does not have a defined go-to scorer this season, thus Joseph’s playmaking ability is ideal.

Last season, Syracuse was one of the worst teams in the country in offensive efficiency (253rd in PPG and 236th in APG). Boeheim will have to hope that his point guard’s style of play translates at the collegiate level seamlessly. Otherwise, if Joseph is unable to make the right basketball play consistently, the Syracuse will have to rely more on its defensive prowess to win games.

Syracuse’s signature 2-3 zone has been a staple point in program. All effective zones have great interior rebounding, but the most disruptive zones, integrates length and athleticism. Last year, the Orange experienced great success defensively. The team was 8th in PPG allowed, 41st in BPG and 17th in SPG. Grant and Fair were able to use their athletic 6’8” frames to disrupt passes on a nightly basis. The Orange will continue to have an arsenal of forwards and centers. Syracuse will have one of the deepest front courts in the country.

Even though the Orange have depth, the team is more inexperienced than in the past. Senior Rakeem Christmas will be the big man on campus. He’ll be expected to control the paint, score, and set an example for his teammates.  He is one of the main returners (23.6 MPG) for Boeheim; only sharpshooter Trevor Cooney played more minutes. In previous seasons, Christmas has never been a focal point of the offense.  He’ll have to adjust to his bigger role and be ready for opponents’ defensive schemes. The Orange cannot afford inconsistent production from Christmas. That is something that has plagued him throughout his collegiate career. If the Orange have any title hopes, Christmas and others will have to produce each game.

Joining the senior will be a group of wings/forwards. Michael Gbinije, B.J. Johnson Tyler Roberson and Chris McCullough will compete for minutes. All four forwards are at least 6’7”. Gbinije has the best chance to make an immediate impact at the start of season. He has the most experience and is the best ball handler out of the group. He’ll most likely play a similar role to Fair and Grant. He has athleticism and size and he can be effective defensively on the perimeter or in the paint. Furthermore, he can run the offense. He received reserved minutes as point guard behind Ennis last season. If Joseph begins to struggle, Boeheim can insert Gbinije at the point.

Roberson and Johnson were both freshmen last season and received limited minutes. Of the two, Roberson was able to crack the starting rotation on rare occasions. If either player can make strides in their respective games, they will earn Boeheim’s confidence and receive more minutes.

And then there’s Chris McCullough, the 6-10 prized Bronx, NY recruit. McCullough is a potential one-and-done player. He is very long, athletic and has tremendous upside. With his ability to run the floor and crash the glass, it gives Boeheim another weapon within his front court. Rounding up the front court is DaJuan Coleman. Coleman could have very well been a starter for this year’s squad but due to his mid-season injury last year, Syracuse won’t know the extent of his role till the start of the season.  But as one can see, once the Orange is fully healthy, they will have six forwards who can play major minutes. Having that type of depth at the college level is a rare occurrence.

The last piece Syracuse must address is how they will put the ball into the basket. Losing three starters whom led the team in scoring means that someone new will have to step up. All signs points to sharpshooter Trevor Cooney. Cooney led the team in 3PM and 3P%, but Syracuse will need more than just his three-pointers. Roughly 72% of Cooney’s 332 FGA attempted were three-pointers. The team didn’t light it up on the scoreboard last season. But in order for Syracuse to have a chance to outscore opponents, Cooney needs to develop into a double threat scorer and score off the dribble. There were multiple games last season when his shot wasn’t falling or teams crowded him on the perimeter. This would result in him practically being irrelevant on the court. If Cooney is able to take his game to the next level, he will no doubt be the team’s primary offensive threat.

The Orange will surely miss the production of its previous starters. In order for the Syracuse to remain in the ACC hierarchy, returning players will have to take the necessary steps to take their games to the next level. Syracuse’s biggest strength is its size and depth in the front court. If Boeheim is able to orchestrate a steady rotation among his big men, the team will have an advantage over opponents. Other teams simply do not have the luxury of having such a deep front court.  And if Joseph and Cooney can step up to the challenge and handle the backcourt responsibilities, Syracuse will be a dangerous team. One can only hope that the Orange will not disappoint and remain to be one of the top teams to watch in the ACC.

Tags: Jim Boeheim Rakeem Christmas Syracuse Orange Trevor Cooney

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