Saturday, October 28, 2006

Beasts in the Front Court

The ability to score on high percentage shots near the basket and to pull down errant shots, and to prevent your opposition from doing the same, has long been a recipe for success in basketball. Teams that are very good offensively up front, pay dividends to the perimeter game as defenders must concentrate on stopping the big men freeing up that outside shot. Similarly, if you shut down an opponent’s inside game, then you can force them to take the lower percentage perimeter shots.

So which Syracuse Orangemen teams had the best frontlines? I’ll give you my top five, and one honorable mention.

Honorable Mention: 1956-1957. The front line had seniors Gary Clark (F, 6’4”), Vinnie Cohen (F, 6’1”), and sophomore Jon Cincebox (C, 6’7”, 235 lbs). Senior Jim Snyder (F/C, 6’5”) saw significant action. Cohen was an All American candidate, an explosive leaper and strong to the hoop, led the team in scoring with 24.2 ppg. Clark was a solid shooting forward and strong rebounder. Cincebox, a wide bodied center with a nice hook shot, had 10 ppg and 11.8 rebounds, while splitting time with Jim Snyder (10.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg). This front line dominated team made Syracuse’s first serious NCAA tournament run, losing to eventual champion North Carolina in the elite eight. Honorable mention because this front line was from a different era, when the game was much different; dominant big men were just starting to become relevant in the college game.

Fifth Place: 1976-1977. The front line had sophomore Dale Shackleford (F, 6’6”), junior Marty Byrnes (F, 6’7”), and freshman Roosevelt Bouie (C, 6’11”). Freshman Louis Orr (F, 6’8”) was a significant contributor off the bench. This was a physically talented front line, though more raw than polished. Statistically, the three starting big men were almost indistinguishable, each averaging about 11 points per game and 8 rebounds. Ability, they were much different: Shack was a flamboyant player, great leaper and good ball handler. Byrnes a solid forward with a nice jump shot and moves around the basket. And Bouie was raw talent at that point, with strength and size to dominate inside, and a tremendous defensive presence. Orr would have another 9.4 ppg and 6.4 rpg, from the bench. The team would go 26-4. Despite all the talent up front, it was really a backcourt driven team with two seniors Jimmy Williams and Larry Kelley leading the way, and Ross Kindel providing support off the bench.

Fourth Place: 1977-1978. This was the next edition of my fifth place team, except now you have Louis Orr starting in place of Shackleford, who had move to guard. The front line was not as deep (obviously, no Orr on the bench). But you have a far more experienced Orr and Bouie up front, and Marty Byrnes was a dominating senior presence (and would be a first round draft pick that spring). Byrnes would lead the team in scoring with 16.3, and he would have 6.9 rpg. Orr would have 12.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, and Bouie would match his freshman year with 10.5 ppg and 8.8 rpg. The Orangemen would go 22-6 that year, as the starting back court from the previous season was gone. The team won several games by sizeable margins, and was capable of dominating most teams. Behind a tremendous effort from Byrnes, they would beat Michigan State and Magic Johnson in the inaugural Carrier Classic.

Third Place: 1978-1979. Now you have the Bouie & Louie show in full force. Senior Dale Shackleford was back at forward, junior Orr at the power forward, and junior Bouie at the center. Sophomore Danny Schayes (C, 6’11”) was talented enough to start for most programs, but could not get enough time on the court. Bouie would lead the team in scoring and rebounding (15.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg), and would shoot a blistering 63% from the floor, all from close range. Defensively he was becoming one of the most dominating presences in college basketball. Orr was running the court well with 13.2 ppg and 7.7 rpg. Shackleford was doing a lot of everything leading the team in assists with 4.1 apg, 14.1 ppg, and 6.4 rpg He would also lead the team in steals. The Orangemen would go 26-4 on the strength of this frontline, winning 19 straight at one point, including a school record 144-92 victory over Sienna. The team could run the court well, big men included, and would score over 100 points nine times.

Second place: 1987-1988. This was a close call with my #1 pick. The forwards were sophomores Stevie Thompson (6’2”) and Derrick Coleman (6’10”), and senior Rony Seikaly (6’10”) was in the middle. Seikaly had matured into a consistent dominating defensive presence in the middle, and had developed into a well rounded offensive center able to score both with his back to the basket and facing it. He led the team in scoring with 16.1 ppg, and had 9.6 rpg. Coleman continued to develop as a tremendous rebounder, leading the team with 11 rpg, and adding 13.5 ppg. And Thompson continued to dazzle everyone with his aerobatics above the rim, scoring 14.1 ppg on a variety of dunks and alley oops, along with having tremendous defensive pressure on ball handlers. All three players would shoot 56% or better from the floor as the team had an excellent fast break, and strong inside game. The team would go 26-9 and win the Big East tournament; when they lost the score was close and when they won, it was big. This team ultimately falls to my #2 because of lack of depth up front (Derek Brower was the only other big man to see significant time, and that wasn’t much), and because of their overall record.

First place: 1988-1989. Thompson and Coleman both had aged one year, and both had improved. Seikaly was gone, but freshman phenom Billy Owens (6’8”, 230 lbs) joined the starting lineup, and Coleman moved over to center. How did this front line do? Coleman would average 16.9 ppg, and have 11.4 rpg; his scoring would only be third highest on the team. Owens would not disappoint anyone as he scored 13 ppg and added 6.9 rpg. Both he and Coleman were excellent ball handlers, and you could not full court press the Orangemen, as Sherman Douglas would just pass the ball over to one of his big men who would pass over the defenders for easy passes and layups. Stevie Thompson would scored 18.0 ppg, and shoot a phenomenal 64% from the floor; he had mastered scoring near the hoop, whether from grabbing loose balls for offensive rebounds or getting the alley-oop from Douglas, Thompson scored very close to the hoop. The bench had 6’11” freshman Richie Manning, 6’7” senior Herman Harried, and 6’5” freshman swingman Dave Johnson to provide significant depth up front. The Orangeman would have runs in each game, similar to the previous season where they would outscore an opponent 10-0, or 15-2, or 18-5, etc. Once or twice a game such a run could be expected, and as a result 12 times the Orangemen scored 100+ points. The athletic ability of the team would allow the big men to block a shot, run the court, and score with ease. The team would go 30-8, losing in the elite eight. As I've mentioned in a previous post, the best teams don't always win (OrangeHoops: Best Doesn't Always Win).

There are other front lines that were dominant, but many of those had a weaker link than the five I selected. Bill Smith and Mike Lee were a strong tandem, but Mark Wadach did not match the rest listed here. Same with Rudy Hackett and Chris Sease; no one would argue that Earnie Seibert was an all-star.

Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick in 2002-2003 deserve some serious consideration; and sophomore Craig Forth was greatly underrated for his efforts over the course of the season. The 2002-03 team did have depth up front with Jeremy McNeil as a reserve center, Josh Pace a reserve do-it-all type guy. But I think even if we combine the efforts of McNeil and Forth, they still come up short at the center position. Without a doubt Melo and Hak were a dominating duo up front.

One thing is definitely clear, when you look back at the dominant front lines Syracuse has had over the years… if you have a strong front court, your team will win. That’s the common thread between all five picks (plus the honorable mention and the 2002-03 teams).

The 2006-2007 team is intriguing. The experience of the team is the three seniors in the front court: Demetris Nichols, Terrence Roberts and Mookie Watkins. Matt Gorman, a fourth senior, provides depth at the forward and center position from the bench. And, depending how the season goes, super frosh Paul Harris could end up playing more forward than guard. This could be one of the dominating front lines in Syracuse history, based on their potential. They’ve all shown flashes before. But they’ve also been maddingly inconsistent. I could see all three starting seniors blossom into their full potential, or two of the three succeeding and Harris moving to small forward. I also could see there being little additional improvement from the group… and so we’ll see how it plays out.


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