Monday, October 31, 2011

2011-2012 Starting in a Lofty Position

Syracuse is starting the 2011-2012 season ranked #5.  The Orange have a reputation of often underachieving when highly rated, and overachieving when lowly ranked or unranked.   However, starting the year at #5 is a rarity for the Orange, something accomplished only three times before.  There are some strong similarities between those three seasons, as we will see.

In the fall of 1985, the Orange were ranked #4 to start the season. This was Pearl Washington’s junior season, and the underrated Rafael Addison was getting recognition as he entered his senior year.  Senior Wendell Alexis was finally getting a starting job, as was Howard Triche, and Rony Seikaly was moving into his sophomore year.  The Pearl played as well as could be expected, but an injury to Addison’s knee hampered the second half of his year.  Rony Seikaly improved, but not as much as hoped.  The Orangemen would go 26-6 over the season including 14-2 in the Big East, winning the Big East Regular season championship.  They would lose to St. John’s in a close game in the Big East Tournament Championship, and would earn a #2 seed for the NCAA tournament.  The Orangemen would suffer an embarrassing second round upset loss to Navy, though David Robinson was showing the world that he was a great player.  The Orangemen would finish the year ranked #9.

In 1987 the Orangemen were ranked #1, following their loss to Indiana in the NCAA Championship the year before.  The Orangemen had a lot of talent with junior Sherman Douglas leading the offense, and senior Rony Seikaly dominating the middle.  Sophomore Derrick Coleman and Stephen Thompson would provide the front court presence and Matt Roe the outside shooting.  The Orangemen would go 11-5 in the Big East, 26-9 overall.  They would win the Big East Tournament, easily beating Villanova in the finals, and would earn a #3 seed.  The Orangemen would unfortunately be upset in the second round in an upset to Rhode Island with an ailing Sherman Douglas struggling to play.  The Orange would again finish the year ranked #9.

Finally in 1989 the Orangemen were again ranked #1.  Senior Stephen Thompson moved to point guard, with sophomore Dave Johnson playing the other guard position.  Syracuse’s front court included senior Derrick Coleman, sophomore Billy Owens and junior LeRon Ellis.  The Orange struggled with Thompson and the point, and freshman Michael Edwards would move to the point, with Thompson moving back to the shooting guard.  The Orangemen would go 26-7 with a 12-4 record in the Big East. They would win the Big East Regular season championship, but lose in the Big East Tournament Finals in a close game to UConn.  They would earn a #2 seed, but lose in the Sweet Sixteen to Minnesota. They would finish the year ranked #6.

Those three seasons all had the Orangemen play very well in the Big East, winning a regular season championship or tournament championship each time.  They made the BET finals each time, and earned a good seed in the NCAA.  All three teams bowed out of the NCAA shockingly early (2nd or 3rd round).   So those teams were successful by most season standards, but they failed to live to the lofty pre-season.

So what can we expect in 2011-2012?  There are a lot of unknowns for the Orange, mixed in with a lot of pluses.  They do return a lot of talent from the previous season, and they do have a very experienced team.  It is also a very deep team with eleven guys who could see significant playing time (though that surely will shake down to nine).

The Orange could have an explosive offense with the ability to pound the ball inside, slash to the hoop, or score from the perimeter.  Defensively they could once again have the dominating Orange zone defense, with a lot of length and speed.

There are some questions that will need to be answered to find out what the Orange can really do.

Rick Jackson:  Can the Orange replace big Rick Jackson? Jackson provided consistency last year, dominating the boards all season long, and locking down the defense in the low post.  Players like Jackson are rare, an individual who had the strength, drive and hustle, along with the maturity of a senior.  Rakeem Christmas could replace Jackson, but that is an awful lot to ask of any player, much less a freshman.

The Centers:  Last year Fab Melo was disappointing most of the season, and Syracuse was saved by the fact that Baye Keita came out of nowhere to provide a spark in the middle.  Will Melo display the promise that he had coming out of high school? Will the NCAA game slow down for him, and will he be able to stay out of foul trouble.  If Melo doesn’t improve, the loss of Jackson will be more apparent, and it will put a lot of pressure on Keita.

Scoop Jardine: Which Scoop Jardine will the Orange see most of the time? Will he be a leader on the court, and run the offense for a whole forty minutes, or will he continue to have an over abundance of ‘Scoop moments’, along with forgetting about his teammates in crunch time and trying to do it all himself?

Team Chemistry: What type of team will the Orange have? Will it be a cohesive unit like the Rautins-Johnson team of two years ago, or a fragmented teams of super egos? There is a lot of talent coming in from the freshman class, and a lot of returning talent, all of whom are going to want playing time.  Are the players going to be able to work together, or is each going to try to show off his talent any chance he gets ala a Donte Greeen?

The Orange should have a very good season, and I would be surprised if they are not a 3 seed or higher come tournament time. The experience on the team cannot be overstated; it is very important for developing the ‘basketball IQ’. 

I know I eagerly await the season tip off. Go Orange!