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Monday, August 2, 2010
Summer Buzz: Syracuse Orange

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subjects? Butler and Syracuse. (For today's take on Butler, click here.) Up next? Georgetown.

2009-10's Syracuse season opened with a whimper. It ended with a Sweet Sixteen loss to Butler. But between those low lights -- an exhibition loss to the mighty LeMoyne Dolphins and an offensively dormant upset at the hands of an elite Butler defense -- the Orange were as consistently good as any team in the country.

A few months removed from that brilliant effort, it's easy to forget that most people didn't project Syracuse as a top 25 team, let alone a national title contender. The departures of Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris made most onlookers assume the Cuse would go through the typical big-program standby year while coach Jim Boeheim's talented recruits figured out the Big East for themselves.

Of course, that's because we didn't know about Wes Johnson, the Iowa State transfer whom Boeheim oh-so-accurately predicted as a top 10 draft pick back when the rest of us were bleating, "Wes who?" Boeheim was right. Johnson was that good. And combined with the strong interior play of Arinze Onauku and Kris Joseph, the deadly accurate shooting of Andy Rautins, and the always-tricky 2-3 zone, Syracuse was very much a member of the elite.

With Johnson, Rautins, and Onauku gone, Syracuse loses its second Big Three in two years. But this time, most college hoops fans shouldn't be so eager to write the Orange off.

Why? Because the 2010-11 Orange could do the same thing the 2009-10 Orange did: Absorb talented, veteran losses, incorporate newcomers seamlessly, and enjoy yet another year at the top of the college hoops dogpile.

Much of that will come down to the play of Boeheim's much-touted newcomers. Seven-foot, 274-pound Brazilian Fabricio Melo -- heretofore and forever known as "Fab," which is about as awesome a nickname as you can ask for -- is the No. 1 center in the class of 2010. At this point in his development, Melo specializes in low-post scoring, meaning he could be the perfect replacement for the efficient Onauku.

Whether Syracuse can weather the loss of Johnson on the defensive end -- who led the Cuse in defensive rebounding rate last season and posted a 5.7 percent block percentage, second only on the team to bench forward Rick Jackson -- will hinge on whether Melo can shorten his learning curve considerably and use his size to dominate the middle of Syracuse's zone in year one.

Melo has been getting much of the Syracuse-related recruiting attention, but there's also Dion Waiters, the No. 2 shooting guard in the incoming class. According to ESPNU's scouts, Waiters is already an elite offensive threat who attacks the rim with impressive explosion and body control.

There are a few key stats the Orange must approximate if they want to have a repeat of last year's season. The biggest is shooting: With a team effective field goal percentage of 57.6, Syracuse was the second-best shooting team in the country in 2009-10. It wasn't hard to see why: Johnson and Rautins were hyper-efficient shooters from the perimeter, while Onauku and Kris Joseph pounded the ball inside and scored from under the hoop. (I'd love to see a highlight reel of baskets from four feet or less by Syracuse last year. Sometimes, watching the Cuse play felt like watching that reel.) That dynamic attack made Syracuse the eighth-most efficient offense in the country.

Melo should help where the latter is concerned. For the former, Syracuse's ability to stay versatile from the wing -- and to make a few buckets from beyond the arc -- will have to come by committee. Brandon Triche and Mookie Jones both shot a higher FG percentage than Johnson last season; Jones actually shot better than every other Orangeman save Onuaku. (Yes, including Rautins.) Triche and fellow backcourt mate Scoop Jardine appear poised to start together, with Jardine at the point and Triche in the Rautins-esque shooting combo role. If Waiters can provide shooting of his own, Syracuse should be able to keep their jump-shooting game in the same ballpark as last season's impressive effort.

There's no getting around the fact that Syracuse lost much of its attack this spring. Johnson was an NBA-ready talent with versatility to spare. Rautins, though prone to turnovers, was a hot shooter who kept the Syracuse offense humming. Onuaku made the most of his touches in the lane. All three did different things; all three contributed in big ways to the team's success.

But there's a sneaky little fact about Syracuse's efficiency profile: Three of the team's top four possession contributors return in 2010. Those three are Jardine, Triche, and Jones. All three will feature prominently in the new look Cuse, and all three have skill sets that can combine to make up what Syracuse lost in the backcourt departures of Rautins and Johnson.

Factor in a pair of top-level recruits, including one that should help shore up the loss of Onuaku in the post, and it would almost be surprising if Syracuse didn't succeed in the coming season. They may not be as good as last year's team. We might not be fitting Syracuse for a No. 1 seed come March. But none of Syracuse's personnel losses are devastating or irreplaceable, especially not on a team this deep and talented.

The Big Three is gone -- again -- but Syracuse can adapt. Boeheim's program is humming. Warning to the college hoops minds of the world: Don't leave Syracuse out of your top 25 this time.