Sunday, November 07, 2010

Freshman Centers on the Hill

Freshman have been eligible to play NCAA Division I basketball since the 1973-1974 season. The first freshman center to start for Syracuse was in Coach Jim Boeheim’s first season 1976-1977. It was a notable freshman center with Roosevelt Bouie starting all 30 games that season, and Syracuse running to a remarkable 26-4 record, before bowing out of the NCAA tournament in the 2nd round.

In the Boeheim era, there have been six freshman who were the starting centers the majority of their first year on the Hill. In chronological order they are Bouie, Andre Hawkins, Rony Seikaly, Otis Hill, Jeremy McNeil and Craig Forth. Fab Melo looks to be number seven on that list.

The results for those first year freshman centers is mixed. All have been unpolished offensive players, to a variety of different degrees. Some were strong defensive presences their first season with their shot block ability, while others looked to plug a hole.

Bouie was by far the best freshman center at Syracuse, and at 6’11” he was highly recognizable on the court. Although he was not a solid offensive player, he could run the court and score inside, making 54% of his shots. He was not adept at drawing fouls that season, getting to the line only 55 times, but he made a remarkable 84% of his attempts (remarkable because he would be a career 66% free throw shooter). Bouie would struggle with fouls all four years at Syracuse, but he managed to play 25 minutes a game his freshman year, and had a respectable 10.9 ppg and 8.1 rpg. His big difference on the court was his 91 blocked shots, which set a defensive tone for the Orangemen, on their way to a 26-4 record.

Andre Hawkins would be the next freshman center at Syracuse. At 6’6”, 240 lbs, Hawkins was counted on to plug the hole in the middle resulting from the graduation of Danny Schayes. Hawkins was a bruiser inside, but he had limited offensive skills, and with no height was not much of a defensive threat. Hawkins would make 62% of his limited shots, for a 5.6 ppg average, and had only 3.9 rpg. Hawk struggled with fouls all season, and the Orangemen struggled to their worst season under Coach Boeheim at 16-13.

Rony Seikaly came onto the scene in 1984-1985, and at 6’10”, 235 lbs, he made his defensive presence know immediately. Seikaly would have 59 blocked shots his freshman year, score 8.1 ppg, and pull down 6.4 rpg. His offensive skills were limited to a tomahawk dunk, and he made about 54% of his shot attempts. Seikaly did redshirt his true freshman year, so he had one season of practice under his belt when he did start. He struggled with fouls, being disqualified from 11 of the 31 games he would play, averaging 25 minutes per game. Seikaly was important enough to the squad that his presence moved senior Andre Hawkins from center to power forward. Syracuse would finish 22-9 and go to the NCAA tournament.

Otis Hill was the next freshman center in 1993-1994. Hill was built like Hawkins, though a little bit bigger at 6’8”, 235 lbs. Hill was very foul prone, fouling out of 10 games, and averaging 24 minutes per game. When he did play, he managed 7.9 ppg, along with 5.6 rpg, and had 42 blocked shots. Hill was a bruiser inside, but also had some passing skills with 36 assists. He did beat out sophomore J.B. Reafsnyder for the starting position. Syracuse would go 23-7 that season; it didn’t hurt that the Orangemen had the talented Lawrence Moten and John Wallace on the squad.

Next was Jeremy McNeil in 2000-2001. McNeil was probably the least skilled offensive player of the six mentioned, with all of his shots being dunk attempts or put-backs near the hoop. He would make 65% of his shots from the close proximity. McNeil at 6’8”, 257 lbs, loved to block shots, and was extremely foul prone while trying to do that. He would end up with 65 blocked shots, but also play only 16 minutes a game with 103 fouls and 10 disqualifications. McNeil would average only 2.5 ppg along with 3.2 rpg, and junior Billy Celuck spent a lot of time relieving him.

Craig Forth would arrive on the scene the next season (2001-2002) and would replace McNeil as the starting center. Forth, at 7’, was a completely different style of player from McNeil. Forth was a very passive natured player, whereas McNeil was ultra-aggressive. Forth was good at passing the ball (41 assists), and unlike most of the freshman centers for Syracuse, did not mind stepping away from the hoop (he made only 44% of his field goal attempts). Forth was adept at using his wide body to fill up the middle of the zone, and box out apposing offensive players, which made him far more attractive to Coach Jim Boeheim and his zone defense. Forth would average only 4.6 ppg, along with 4.5 rpg, as Syracuse went 23-13 and lost in the NIT Final Four.

There were some other notable freshman centers. Danny Schayes, in 1977-1978, was a decent offensive player in terms of basic skills. He unfortunately had to sit behind sophomore Roosevelt Bouie. Schayes would average 4.7 ppg and 4.0 rpg that year.

Richie Manning was a decent freshman player in 1988-1989, who may have started for a lot of teams. But he entered an extremely talented squad that saw junior All-American Derrick Coleman shift to center so that freshman sensation Billy Owens could make the starting lineup. There were not too many minutes for Manning to pick up, but in the 10 minutes a game he go, he did average 3.4 ppg and 1.8 rpg. Manning, at 6’11”, 253 lbs, was a solid offensive player, who needed more work on the defensive end of the court. Despite playing only 10 minutes a game, he picked up 61 fouls, or one every 5.7 minutes of play.

Etan Thomas is the other freshman center of note. Thomas sat behind senior Otis Hill and sophomore Elvir Ovcina, yet due to injuries on the team, and his own improved play, he would start 12 games and average 16 minutes a game. Thomas was an excellent shot blocker getting 48 blocks in his limited playing time, and scoring 5.7 ppg with 4.2 rpg. The team would struggle going 19-13, and went 8-4 in the 12 games he started.

2010-2011 has Syracuse looking at starting 7’ freshman phenom Fab Melo. DaShonte Riley may have fought him for that position originally, but with Riley’s injury, it looks like Melo will be the seventh freshman center for Syracuse. Like all the other freshman centers, he is a raw offensive talent, with a lot of defensive potential. Like Bouie, Seikaly and McNeil, he will be counted on at times to alter a game with his shot blocking skills. Melo is probably the most highly touted center coming to Syracuse since Roosevelt Bouie, which puts him in very good company. Then again, there is a lot for a freshman to learn.

Syracuse did very well with Bouie at center, but he is the exception. The other teams with freshman centers have been average Syracuse NCAA caliber squads, to NIT quality squads. Freshman basketball players have a lot to learn, and centers are usually far less polished than guards and forwards. Their size does allow them to make some immediate contributions, but history also tells us that they struggle to stay on the court because of a tendency to be in foul trouble. On a Syracuse team that will not have a lot of depth at center, that could be bad news. Senior Rick Jackson will surely move from his forward positions at times and play center giving Melo a breather, as will fellow freshman Baye Moussa Keita.

I am hoping Melo is the next Bouie. Even a Seikaly level season would be good for this squad which will have talent and experience in other positions. It is tough to tell how good Melo will be. As many of you know, I am not one to jump on the recruiting hype machine, rather waiting to see what develops. I am eager to see how it all plays out.


Syracusan said...

There's no way Fab averages 11 & 8 like Bouie, there's too much other talent on this team for him to get those numbers. He won't get enough shots or enough rebound chances with guys like Joseph and Jackson next to him. But that's OK as long as the team is excelling. I think Fab definitely has a chance to be the 2nd best freshman center we've ever had.

I'm worried, however, by the trend you've identified that suggests SU teams with freshman centers have struggled historically. It's not hard to imagine a continuation of that pattern this year if Fab can't handle the burden we're putting on him. What if he ends up like some of these other guys and can only manage to average something like 5 & 4? With lots of fouls and DQs? That would be a major problem.

OrangeRay said...

I do agree that there is a burden on Fab Melo this year, and foul trouble could very likely limit his effectiveness on a game-by-game basis. Syracuse does have options with Rick Jackson able to slide over to center, though I like him much better at forward. And Keita may be able to spell a breather here and there. Worst case scenario is Melo gets into foul trouble often, and Jackson pulls his 'disappearing' routine where he doesn't bring his 'A' game routinely.

Syracuse's perimeter defense will also be an issue this year. Rautins and Johnson were fantastic in that aspect last year, helping the Orange dominate teams defensively. We'll have to see if the team can play as solid defensively without them.