*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered – the top 16 teams in the nation will be previewed individually in the next few weeks. After we broke down Louisville and hated Duke yesterday, we’ll keep this going with No. 5-ranked Syracuse (ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll).*
Take one look at this year’s Syracuse team and you won’t see much of a difference. The Orange, after all, only loses one player in the graduated Rick Jackson. Granted, Jackson was one of SU’s best, if not the best player on last year’s squad. But with three highly-touted freshmen coming in and the rest of the roster one year older and wiser, expectations remain high for the 2011-2012 Syracuse Orange.
Those expectations annually fall on a team like Syracuse, but last year’s second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament provides an extra sense of motivation for SU, especially for players like fifth-year senior Scoop Jardine.
“We’re more excited,” said Jardine at Big East media day. “Coach is excited, our players are. We have a little bad blood in our mouth from losing in the second round last year.”
As is with most teams, SU expects a championship this year. But what the Orange have that other teams don’t is the experience to get there.
Kris Joseph will be the star of this team. The preseason All-Big East First Teamer was SU’s leading scorer last year with 14.3 points per game, and returns for his senior season as one of the conference’s best. Joining him in a leadership role is Jardine, a preseason All-Big East Second Teamer and the longest-tenured player on SU. Jardine led the team in assists last year and showed his ability to carry the team on his back. Complementing him in SU’s experienced backcourt is junior Brandon Triche, a starter since his freshman year. Triche, along with Jardine and Jackson, played in and started all 35 games last year for SU, and is one of the most accurate free-throw shooters on the team.
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This is an area that is extremely underrated in my opinion. Look at the champions in any sport recently, and you’ll see that often, teamwork prevailed over superior talent. Two years ago, Syracuse opened the season with mild expectations. The team had lost Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf, and was left with Arinze Onuaku, Andy Rautins and wild card transfer Wes Johnson. But the team surprised everyone with one of its best seasons ever, even reaching the No. 1 ranking one week. Compare that season to last year. SU opened last season with extremely high expectations. But it struggled in early-season wins and Jim Boeheim took to calling his team overrated. SU lost in the second round. Now look at this year. The team should be better. But is the chemistry there? Does this team have the “it” factor? Jardine said he feels a different vibe for this team when compared to last year’s. I believe it.
I’m curious to see how Rakeem Christmas does. Last year’s prized big man Fab Melo struggled in his first year at SU and ended up being overshadowed at times by Baye Moussa Keita. I think Christmas can have a better freshman season than Melo did, and with Jackson gone, Christmas has huge shoes to fill.
Last year’s heralded freshman class enters year two abound with questions. Can Fab Melo regain what made him a top recruit in the first place and man the center position for the Orange? Can Moussa Keita and C.J. Fair build off their solid, respectable first years? Can Dion Waiters have a bigger role and become a superstar? It’s not unrealistic to answer yes to all of those questions. There’s no question Melo wants to improve. And with two of the three freshmen being guards, Fair and Moussa Keita should have increased roles in the frontcourt. Waiters went through an up and down first year at SU, but has shown a renewed sense of focus this year.
This team can be good. The Orange brings back experience on all ends of the ball and has an encouraging freshman class. Joseph can be a superstar and the team is extremely deep. Can they be national championship good? That’s debatable, but don’t tell that to Jardine, who views this season as championship or bust.
“This is my last year,” he said. “This is only my right to try to win a national championship.”