Last season was a surprise, and many factors came together to make the team one of the strongest in Syracuse basketball history.
1) The emergence of Wes Johnson as a top tier NCAA basketball player. Coach Jim Boeheim was telling everyone how good Johnson was in practice in 2009-2010, and how good he thought he would be. Yet no one wanted to believe the Hall of Fame coach, despite Boeheim having a long history of understating how good the new players were. Johnson ended up being better than I believe Boeheim even believed he could be.
2) The re-emergence of the shutdown zone defense, something that was not seen operating in its full beauty since the 2002-2003 season. The improvement in the zone defense itself should not have been a surprise as the change in personnel alone signaled an improvement would occur in the zone. Eric Devendorf never pretended to play defense, and Paul Harris never understood the nuances of playing zone defense. Jonny Flynn, as talented as he is, was more suited for man-to-man defense, and undersized for the top of the key in the zone defense. Those three were switched out for a 6’4” Brandon Triche at the top of the key, 6’5” Andy Rautins who was a master of zone defense, and 6’7” Wes Johnson whose natural athleticism and understanding of the game allowed him to fill that back end of the zone well. Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku were both a year older and more mature, and the extra year of playing in the Boeheim zone only benefited them. So we knew the zone would be better; I don’t we think could have anticipated that it would have been a phenomenal defense. That was the surprise.
3) A selfless team led by two selfless players in Rautins and Johnson. The 2009-2010 team made the extra pass, played a style of basketball the rewarded teammates for hustling down the court. The team moved the ball well around the perimeter and inside-out, resulting in some outstanding interior shooting by Jackson and Onuaku, and some excellent perimeter shooting by Rautins, Johnson, and Triche.
4) Experience, experience, experience. Syracuse did have three new starters in the squad in 2009-2010, but Rautins was a fifth year senior, and Johnson a fourth year junior, both with plenty of collegiate experience. Jackson was in this third year of the program, and Onuaku in this fifth. Scoop Jardine came off the bench as a third year sophomore. Kris Joseph was in his second season as a reserve with plenty of experience his freshman year, leaving only Brandon Triche as the inexperienced player. This team had a lot of experience, particularly in the correct positions.
5) An easier schedule in 2009-2010 than in 2008-2009. Now don’t get me wrong; last season was a very difficult season, and Syracuse was outstanding in playing that season. Last year they played 10 games versus top 25 teams, and the Orange went 8-2, including 6-0 versus top 10 teams. The only losses to top 25 teams occurred when Arinze Onuaku was no longer effectively in the squad. In 2008-2009, they played 15 games versus top 25 teams; that is an absurb number, and the Orange went a respectable 7-8. They played 4 games against top 5 teams, going 1-3.
Clearly, a lot of things went well for the Orange last season. Addition by subtraction. Maturation/improvement from all the key players; that doesn’t always happen. I team that bought into the ‘team concept’ and played outstanding team defense.
The coaching staff is back, and that constant had led to the ongoing success in the Boeheim era. The single concept of Jim Boeheim being there every year is absolutely vital for the program’s continued success. Keeping the key assistants in Mike Hopkins, Bernie Fine and Rob Murphy is also vital.
Syracuse is bringing in some top flight talent, which is a change from last year where there were no top 50 recruits in SU’s starting lineup. Syracuse does have some experience coming back, which again will help them out. Scoop Jardine will be a fourth year junior, and Rick Jackson a pure senior. Kris Joseph will be in his third year, and was third in minutes for the Orange last year. Many, including myself, are expecting Joseph to continue to elevate his game. Brandon Triche now has a year of collegiate basketball under his belt, and Mookie Jones is now in his third year with the program. James Southerland had a year of practicing against Onuaku and Johnson last year, so I am eager to see how he has improved.
The incoming freshman are highly touted. Fab Melo is being counted on for some valuable minutes at the center. Replacing Onuaku will be very difficult, and Melo is a different style player, and only a freshman. Freshman centers are often the least disciplined players in their first years, having to make the biggest adjustments, so it will be asking a lot for Melo to be star in year one. But he could be. Baye Moussa Keita, a lanky but athletic freshman, will back him up.
Syracuse will be a little bit smaller at the top of the key with Jardine (6’2”) replacing Rautins (6’5”); but Jardine is not inexperienced at the zone. Freshman Dion Waiters, at 6’4”, should be a nice piece of the zone at the top, if he understands the concept.
The loss of Onuaku in the back of the zone will hurt a lot. Arinze took up a lot of space horizontally, and had tremendous strength. Rick Jackson will likely play some center this year, and has a similar build, but that removes size from Jackson’s former position. Melo, at 7’, would definitely fill up space, but he will have a lot to learn. Joseph at 6’7” should be a good replacement for Johnson. Sophomore James Sutherland and freshman CJ Fair, both at 6’8”, should be able to provide some wingspan on the back of that zone.
If the returning players from last year can convince the new players to buy into the concept that won so many games last year, and some of the players continue to develop, 2010-2011 can be another exciting year.