Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Four New Starters

Four new starters. That is what Syracuse has in front of it for the 2007-2008 season (24-11, 10-6), with Eric Devendorf the lone returning starter. Terrence Robert, Demetris Nichols and Darryl Watkins have graduated from last year’s squad, and Andy Rautins is out for this year with a torn ACL.

I am excited to watch this year’s team play. I do not know how good they ultimately will be, but they do have a lot of young talent coming into the program, and several flashy players. I’m betting that even when they lose, the Orange may have some fun moments.

There are two areas to the 2007-2008 squad that I am concerned about. First, there is a lack of experience up front with the big men. I’ve seen a lot of chatter from fans who are confident in Arinze Onuaku being able to be a dominant big man. I think he has the size and skill to do that, but does he have the experience? He has played only one season of college basketball, where he played only 243 minutes. His production for those minutes was impressive: 80 rebounds and 58 points, which translates into 13 rebounds and 9.5 points per 40 minutes. But he also had 31 fouls, or one every 8 minutes, so he may have a tough time staying on the court long enough to be productive. And he missed last season due to injury, so that’s always an unknown.

Donte’ Green has a lot of potential, but he is a freshman. Syracuse did pick up junior college transfer Kristof Ogneaet which should help a lot. Freshman Rick Jackson also should contribute up front. The only other big man on the roster is Devin Brennan-McBride, who would need to make big strides from last year to be a contributor this year. So the Orange do have some depth up front. Hopefully the number of bodies and the raw talent of the unproven players will overcome the glaring lack of experience, especially in Big East play. Paul Harris should continue to be a monster on the boards, and probably will average double digits, but at 6’5”, he’s overmatched by big men in the Big East down low, and we need the other players to contribute.

My second concern on the team is the lack of a perimeter shooter. Devo can shoot from the perimeter, but who will compliment him? Rautins is gone for the season, and there’s no doubt the Orange played better last year when Rautins was shooting well. Paul Harris? Did he actually develop the jump shot this summer (and confidence with it) that we’ve heard about? More importantly, has he learned to play without the ball in his hands?

I’ve heard Donte’ Green has a nice outside shot, but Boeheim isn’t going to want his 6’11” rebounding forward to be roaming the arc. Especially on a team with possible questions up front. I haven’t see Jonny Flynn or Scoop Jardine in real games yet, so their outside shooting is going to be a big question mark. Lack of outside shooting always hurts, but will particularly hurt the 2007-2008 Orange squad. Both Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf love to drive the paint, and it’s going to be very crowded in there if there is no perimeter shooting to loosen it up. Plus, if Devo drives the paint, and the defense collapses on him, who is he going to kick it back out to?

The good sign for the Orange this year is they are unranked in the preseason. As all Orange fans know, Jim Boeheim does his best with underrated teams, and all four Syracuse Final Four teams fell into that category.

The bad sign is having four new starters. I know this is a new era of college basketball, where you can expect more from your freshman class and there is less dependency on experience. I’m not sold on the concept though, and I like to have some experience on the court. I think having a couple of seasoned players in the right positions mixed with some raw talent is a good combination, if you are lucky. Having wholesale turnover on the starting five, or close to it, is scary.

Only three times in Boeheim’s career has he had four new starters for a season. The first time the results turned out pretty good. In 1995-1996 Syracuse lost starters Michael Lloyd, Lawrence Moten, Luke Jackson, and J.B. Reafsnyder lost his starting position. The lone returning starter was John Wallace; but he was a huge return, as it turned out. And none of the new starters were freshman; they all were experienced players who finally had the opportunity to play. Lazarus Sims at the point, junior college transfer Jason Cipolla at the shooting guard, sophomore Todd Burgan at the swing position, and Otis Hill at center. This team would have a solid regular season, going 10-6 in the Big East before making a run in the NCAA tournament, and losing the finals to Kentucky. But this was a special situation: lot’s of veteran players seeking an opportunity to start and a senior college superstar in John Wallace, who had passed up leaving early the season before.

The second time Boeheim had four new starters was in 2000-2001. The Orangemen had gone 26-6 the year before (13-3 in the Big East), and lost seniors Jason Hart, Ryan Blackwell, and Etan Thomas, and sophomore Tony Bland transferred. The 2000-01 squad would go 25-9 (10-6 in the Big East) as Allen Griffin returned to the starting lineup (he started his sophomore season), sophomore DeShaun Williams got the start, and the previous seasons’ sixth man Preston Shumpert got his starting berth. Freshman Jeremy McNeil was the only raw player on the squad, and he played only 542 minutes because of foul trouble and inexperience. Junior Billy Celuck would split the center position with him.

The third time was very recent history, the 2005-2006 season. Josh Pace, Hakim Warrick and Craig Forth graduated, and Louie McCrosky transferred, leaving Gerry McNamara as the lone returning starter from a team that went 27-7, (11-5 in the Big East). Three juniors would step into the starting lineup with Demetris Nichols, Terrence Roberts and Darryl Watkins, and freshman Eric Devendorf would join GMac in the backcourt. The Orange would finish 23-12 overall, and a disappointing 7-9 in the Big East. Only a fantastic Big East tournament salvaged the season.

I don’t see the ‘John Wallace’ type player returning from last year’s squad. Paul Harris does fall into that valuable sixth man role getting his chance to start, the role that Shumpert and Roberts had held in their prior seasons. Devo, as the lone returning starter, falls into the “McNamara-lite” category.

Since I know some of you are thinking of the 2002-2003 squad, keep in mind that the Orange that year had only two new starters. Kueth Duany and Craig Forth were starters all the previous season, and Hakim Warrick had locked down the starting position late in the previous season. You had experienced players like Josh Pace and Jeremy McNeil off the bench. Three very special freshman came into that mix with Carmelo Anthony, McNamara and Billy Edelin. They had some veterans around them to help out, especially Kueth Duany who’s impact on that season goes greatly unnoticed. So I do not think that the 2003 National Championship team is similar to this year's squad in any analogous comparison.

I think the Orange will do well this year, and finish the season somewhere between #11-15 in the country, and in the top 4 of the Big East. They'll win 20+ games (as usual). I would love to be pleasantly surprised, but a lot of ‘ifs’ are out there. Ask me again in January... I'll have a much better idea then.

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