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Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Team preview: Syracuse Orange

Blue Ribbon Yearbook

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Syracuse endured one of the most scandal-plagued seasons in college basketball history last season.

First, two former SU ball boys came forward with allegations of sexual abuse against assistant coach Bernie Fine. The allegations -- Fine has yet to be charged with anything partly because the specific allegations have passed the statute of limitations -- eventually cost Fine his job. The Fine accusations also landed Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim in hot water when he stepped over the line while defending his long-time assistant. Boeheim's vehement response (he called the accusers liars and claimed they were only out for money) drew criticism from abuse advocates who said his words would discourage victims of other abuse crimes from coming forward.

The Fine scandal alone would have enough to cripple most programs. But the Orange was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in late January when starting center Fab Melo was declared academically ineligible. The Orange lost at Notre Dame in its first game without Melo, but went onto defeat Cincinnati and West Virginia minus the 7-foot sophomore.

Melo was reinstated and the Orange continued to win. Syracuse finished the regular season 30-1. Then, on the opening day of the Big East tournament, Yahoo! Sports reported the NCAA was investigating Syracuse for non-compliance with the school's own drug abuse policy. The report stated that several players, though none on the 2011-12 roster, had been allowed to play despite violating the drug policy. What the Yahoo! story didn't say was that Syracuse had self-reported the drug issues more than a year earlier.

Still, it was another dark cloud hanging over the Orange.

But the hits just kept a-coming. On the eve of the NCAA tournament, Melo's academic issues rose up again. This time, Melo was declared ineligible for the tournament. A bust as a freshman, Melo had morphed into the Big East's defensive player of the year in 2012. He anchored SU's zone defense, and though he averaged barely seven points per game, he still provided something of a low-post presence on offense.

Syracuse was suddenly a vulnerable No. 1 seed. After a huge scare in the first-round against UNC Asheville, the Orange regrouped. Syracuse easily handled Kansas State to advance to the Sweet 16 and then held off Wisconsin to advance to the Elite Eight. In the East Region finals, Melo's absence was felt. The Orange had no answer for Ohio State's Jared Sullinger.

Falling one game shy of its first Final Four appearance since the 2003 national championship season was a disappointment to most Syracuse fans, but the Orange's ability to navigate a season riddled with off-court issues was a testament to the strength of the program.

Boeheim and his staff took the brunt of the Fine fall-out, leaving the players to concentrate on the court. The drug issue could be significant, but Boeheim made sure his current players weren't distracted by the story. Boeheim's long-standing mantra of simply coaching the players he has and not worrying about the ones who are injured or suspended or otherwise unavailable paid off when Melo was ruled ineligible not once, but twice. And still, Syracuse finished the season at 34-3, the most wins in school history.

Another headline will dominate the Orange's 2012-13 season. This will be Syracuse's last year in the Big East before heading to the ACC. Syracuse was a founding member of the Big East and Boeheim is the only coach who was there at the dawn of the conference who is still coaching now. Boeheim will turn 68 in November. The Hall of Famer has 890 career victories, a national championship and two Olympic gold medals.

Boeheim has given few hints of retirement. Syracuse is in the midst of its winningest era ever. The Orange's recruiting is at an all-time high, with four McDonald's All-Americans committing in the last three years. Boeheim has said he will guide the Orange through its transition into the ACC, meaning he'll coach for at least two more years before handing the reins to top assistant Mike Hopkins.

PLAYERS

PG-MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS (6-6, 185 lbs., SO, #1, 2.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, 10.3 mpg, .431 FG, .389 3PT, .565 FT, Saint Andrew's (R.I.)/Hamilton, Mass.). If you waited until after New Year's Eve to watch a Syracuse game last season, you probably missed seeing much of Michael Carter-Williams. You missed seeing an inordinate amount of potential on display. Carter-Williams has "special" written all over him.

Carter-Williams, a lanky, long-armed point guard who reminds some of a young Jason Kidd, is set to take over the lead guard spot from Scoop Jardine. Carter-Williams is a slick -- at times too slick for his own good -- ball-handler with incredible court vision. The Syracuse big men would be well-advised to keep their eyes open and hands ready whenever Carter-Williams spots the tiniest of openings in a passing lane.

Carter-Williams showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman. In 17 minutes against St. John's at Madison Square Garden, he contributed 13 points, four rebounds and three assists. He handed out eight assists in just 18 minutes against George Washington. In a tight game at Providence, Carter-Williams, who hails from Boston and attended St. Andrew's School in Rhode Island, went 2 of 2 from the field, including a big 3-pointer, and added two rebounds. And after the game, he was upset that he played just four minutes.

"I think he's going to be a good player," Boeheim said. "I think we have to be patient, but he'll be ready to play. I think he's got good size. He can become a real good passer. He's got good length in our defense. I think he's a good defensive player. I think he can rebound a little bit. He's got a lot of positives."

The reason Carter-Williams didn't play more last season was the three-guard rotation of Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters. There just wasn't time for the young point guard, especially when he was just as apt to commit a turnover when going for the spectacular assist as he tried to impact the game quickly when he did get called on.

Boeheim seems confident in Carter-Williams' readiness to step into the starting role.

"Even though he didn't get a lot of minutes, when he did play he was productive," Boeheim said. "So he's got a productive experience already on the court -- on the road at St. John's and Providence. Those were tough games. So I think that will help him."

SG-BRANDON TRICHE (6-4, 210 lbs., SR, #20, 9.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.0 spg, 22.5 mpg, .422 FG, .350 3PT, .775 FT, Jamesville-DeWitt HS/Jamesville, N.Y.). Lost in last year's Dion Waiters storyline -- the one where the talented but frustrated freshman returned to Syracuse and accepted the role of sixth man and turned himself into the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft -- was the story of Brandon Triche.

While the media and fans focused on Waiters' willingness to fill a subservient role, everybody seemed to forget that Triche gave up far more than Waiters did. Even though he came off the bench, Waiters' playing time increased. Triche, who had started the previous two years, saw his minutes per game drop from 28.8 per game as a sophomore to 22.5 per game as a junior.

And Triche never complained. Triche, whose facial expression never seems to change on the court, remained true to his stoic exterior.

Triche experienced an up-and-down season. Through Syracuse's first 23 games, Triche averaged 10.1 points. He reached double-digits 12 times. Not only that, he shot the ball extremely well, hitting 33 out of 82 (.400) of his 3-point shots.

Then, Triche went into a skid. Over the next 12 games -- the last eight games of the regular season plus two in the Big East tournament and two more in the NCAAs -- Triche's scoring dropped to 7.0 points per game. He reached double-figures only once. His shot disappeared. He went 6 of 32 (.180) from 3-point range.

Triche did bounce back with two solid performances in the Sweet 16 versus Wisconsin and Elite Eight against Ohio State with 11 and 15 points, respectively. He hit three out of six 3-pointers in those two games.

Triche should get much more playing time this year. He'll start at the off guard spot. where his backup will be redshirt freshman Trevor Cooney. And instead of fifth-year senior Scoop Jardine at the point, the Orange will go with sophomore Michael Carter-Williams and that should result in a few more minutes at the point for the versatile Triche.

Boeheim needs a big year from Triche, who is one of just two seniors on the Orange's roster.

"I think he's important," Boeheim said. "He's got to be ready. It's his fourth year. He knows what to do."

Boeheim expects his veteran guard to take on a bigger role as the Orange's leader, even though Triche is not the vocal type.

"I don't think that's always important," Boeheim said of Triche's quiet nature. "I just think you have to go out there and work hard and show people what leadership by example is. You don't have to talk. I can talk."

Blue Ribbon Previews
Big East Take an Inside look at the Big East with Blue Ribbon's 2012-13 team reports: Insider
Cincinnati
Connecticut
DePaul
Georgetown
Louisville
Marquette
Notre Dame
Pittsburgh
Providence
Rutgers
Seton Hall
South Florida
St. John's
SyracuseInsider Free
Villanova

SF-C.J. FAIR (6-8, 215 lbs., JR, #5, 8.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 0.9 apg, 1.0 spg, 26.4 mpg, .464 FG, .250 3PT, .743 FT, Brewster Academy/Wolfeboro, N.H./Baltimore, Md.). C.J. Fair started just nine games last season, but in reality he was a starter the entire year. Fair's 26.4 minutes per game were second among the Orange players behind only senior Kris Joseph.

So while Fair's expected promotion to full-time starter really won't change anything for him in terms of playing time, the starting job will come with bigger expectations. Fair, known as an economical player his first two years at Syracuse, must become more of a force this season. Boeheim needs him to step into the role of the Syracuse small forward; the same job that Carmelo Anthony, Demetris Nichols, Donte Greene, Wesley Johnson and Joseph have held down for the last decade.

Last year, Fair ranked fifth on the team in scoring despite being second in minutes played. He was second in rebounding behind only Fab Melo, but he was sixth in assists, fifth in blocks and fourth in steals. Those production numbers must increase if Fair is to fulfill his potential and help the Orange win again.

Fair played his best ball of the season in February. In a four-game stretch against Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers and USF, Fair averaged 15.2 points and 7.7 rebounds. He had a career-high 21 points at Rutgers and a career-high 12 rebounds in the win over UConn.

Then Fair's performance suddenly dropped. In six games spanning the final two regular season contests, two in the Big East tournament and two in the NCAA tournament, Fair didn't score more than six points in any game. Normally a reliable shooter who only takes good shots, Fair went 7 of 27 from the field in those six games. He snapped out of the slump with a clutch 15-point, seven-rebound outing against Wisconsin the Sweet 16.

Fair needs to be consistently assertive. He showed signs of a commitment to a larger role when he showed up on campus in September, looking bigger and stronger. He weighs almost 10 pounds heavier than he did last season.

Fair will play both forward spots depending on who else is on the floor with him. If Rakeem Christmas and Coleman are in the game, Fair's the small forward. If Southerland comes in to provide more outside shooting, Fair can slide to the four spot.

"I think you can argue that C.J. can be a power forward-type player when he wants to be," Boeheim said. "He rebounds the ball. He's a strong, physical player. They both can play at the same time. We don't worry about numbers or positions. We just play the best players."

PF-RAKEEM CHRISTMAS (6-9, 242 lbs., SO, #25, 2.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.8 bpg, 11.5 mpg, .573 FG, .571 FT, Academy of the New Church/Bryn Athyn, Pa.). Rakeem Christmas started 35 out of 37 games as a freshman. Most at power forward. He struggled, though, often coming out of games just minutes after the opening tip. He started but played just three minutes against Virginia Tech. Four minutes against Stanford. Two minutes against Florida. All before, well, Christmas.

In Big East play, Christmas suffered through a nine-game stretch where he never played more than eight minutes and logged more than four minutes just once. It was at the end of that stretch, in the final two games of the regular season, that Boeheim finally (mercifully) removed Christmas from the starting lineup, saving from the embarrassment of the seemingly inevitable early hook.

Then, Fab Melo got suspended. Christmas was suddenly back in the starting lineup, this time at center, as the Orange opened NCAA tournament play. In the Orange's four NCAA games, Christmas averaged 5.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 21.5 minutes of action. In the third round game against Kansas State, Christmas stood tall against the Wildcats' physical frontcourt, scoring eight points and hauling in a season-high 11 rebounds. In the Elite Eight loss to Ohio State, Christmas six points, two rebounds and two blocks.

Christmas' postseason production in the pivot gives rise to the possibility that as he returns to the starting lineup this season, it could be at center and not power forward.

"He can play both spots," Boeheim said. "Defensively, he's played a lot at power forward. I don't see any question about him being able to play both spots."

Should Boeheim decide to play Christmas at the four spot alongside freshman center Dajuan Coleman, the combination would give the Orange a strong rebounding frontcourt. But it would limit the Orange on offense.

"I think we'll use some double low-post stuff this year," Boeheim said. "We'll get two guys in the low post and play two big guys at once more often this year."

C-DAJUAN COLEMAN (6-9, 275 lbs., FR, #32, 21.5 ppg, 14.1 rpg, 2.0 bpg, Jamesville-DeWitt HS/Jamesville, N.Y.). The popular theory regarding Dajuan Coleman's adjustment to the college game centered on his weight. It's been that way the last four years; ever since Coleman burst onto the national recruiting scene as a high school freshman. Over the years, Coleman's weight has been reported as high as 300 pounds. He's currently down to 275. But while many cite Coleman's size as a potential roadblock to early success in college, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim isn't among them.

"I never said that," Boeheim said. "I think he has to be able to get up and down the court. Whatever weight he's at, he's got to be able to get up and down the court. I think he can do that."

Coleman's weight hasn't held him down so far. He helped Jamesville-DeWitt High School, the alma mater of former SU star Andy Rautins and current SU senior Brandon Triche, to three consecutive New York Class A state titles and a semifinal finish last season. He averaged 21.5 points and 14.1 for the Red Rams, whose lineup included Wake Forest freshman Tyler Cavanaugh. Coleman was voted Mr. Basketball in New York and played in the McDonald's All-American game, where he scored seven points and hauled in a game-high 12 rebounds.

Coleman's huge hands seem to swallow up rebounds. His girth enables to him carve out space while positioning under the boards. He's got some nice offensive skills for a young big man. On occasion, he will stray out to the 3-point line and show off a soft shooting touch. But his main role for the Orange this year will be in the paint. He'll battle Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita to replace Fab Melo as Syracuse's starting center.

"I think it's always difficult to tell about freshmen," Boeheim said. "I think he's a physical player. I think he's got good tools. I think he's a good passer. I think he's underrated as a ball-handler and passer. He can do those things even though he's a big guy. He's good around the basket. He's got good hands. I think he's got a good presence under the basket."

F-JAMES SOUTHERLAND (6-8, 215 lbs., SR, #43, 6.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.9 bpg, 0.8 spg, 16.0 mpg, .466 FG, .336 3PT, .697 FT, Notre Dame Prep (Mass.)/Bayside, N.Y.). In the 2009-10 season, Syracuse started two big men -- Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson -- but the lineup that Boeheim used most that year consisted of Wes Johnson and sixth-man Kris Joseph at the forward spots and either Onuaku or Jackson in the middle. Last season, Syracuse started Fab Melo at center with the 6-9 Rakeem Christmas at power forward, but Boeheim's preferred front line featured Joseph and C.J. Fair at forward with Melo at center.

So if James Southerland isn't in the starting lineup for the Orange this season, don't be surprised if the rangy 6-8 senior still doesn't play big minutes off the bench. A front line of Fair, Southerland and either Dajuan Cole-man or Christmas would seem to fit the mold that Boeheim's set in two of the last three years. And if Coleman falters at center, Southerland could step into the starting lineup with Christmas moving to center.

Southerland has just two career starts in his three years at Syracuse, but that doesn't faze Boeheim.

"James has had a lot of playing time," Boeheim said. "He's had to play in big moments in tough games. He had two great games in the [NCAA] tournament last year. He's got enough experience."

Southerland attempted a career-high 110 shots from 3-point range last season, though his percentage did slip a bit. He rebounded and defended better than he had as an underclassman, but he still remains something of a one-dimensional offensive player. He's yet to add a reliable drive to the basket to his outside shooting ability.

Southerland took on a much bigger role late in the season. While he didn't play more than 25 minutes in any game during the regular season, he logged 27 in SU's win over Connecticut in the Big East tournament, scoring 10 points, grabbing four rebounds and blocking two shots. He then played 23 minutes in the conference tournament loss to Cincinnati. Then, with Fab Melo suspended, Southerland scored 15 points in each of SU's first two NCAA tourney games.

In wins over UNC Asheville and Kansas State, Southerland went a combined 5 of 7 from 3-point range, averaged 7.0 rebounds and 28.0 minutes per game. He struggled against Wisconsin and Ohio State, showing that he still has room for improvement.

Whether he starts or comes off the bench, consistency will be the buzz word surrounding Southerland this season.

"James will be an important player for us this season," Boeheim said. "He's one of our two seniors, so we'll be counting on him."

C-BAYE MOUSSA KEITA (6-10, 215 lbs., JR, #12, 2.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 12.3 mpg, .711 FG, .667 FT, Oak Hill Academy [Va.]/Saint Louis, Senegal). After a freshman season in which he impressed the SU coaches with his ability to provide energy, defense and rebounding off the bench, Baye Keita regressed as a sopho-more. Part of the problem was the emergence of Fab Melo as a presence in the middle. No longer was Keita splitting time with Melo. As Melo became a defensive force, Keita's playing time diminished. Even his role as a backup lessened because when Melo was ruled academically ineligible, it was freshman Rakeem Christmas who moved from power forward to center rather than Keita stepping into the starting lineup.

But Keita's struggles were also because of his own limitations. His inability to catch the ball made him an offensive liability. That problem even impacted Keita's ability to grab and hold onto a rebound. Keita is strictly a defender/rebounder type. He failed to score in nine of SU's last 13 games before the NCAA tournament.

Keita, though, could be on the verge of a key year for him. Look at what he did in Syracuse's four games in the NCAA tournament. He averaged 2.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and blocked seven shots in those four games. He had five rebounds and a blocked shot in the Sweet 16 against Wisconsin. He contributed a season-high 10 boards and four blocks in the Elite Eight loss to Ohio State.

In another game that Melo missed, Keita had the game-saving block against West Virginia's Deniz Kilicli. OK, it was a goal-tending violation, but the point is Keita was there to make the play.

While Dajuan Coleman and Christmas figure to battle for the starting center job, Keita will provide an experienced alternative for Boeheim.

"He's getting better," Boeheim said. "He's getting stronger. He helps us on defense. He's got to continue to improve on the offensive end."

G-TREVOR COONEY (6-4, 195 lbs., R-FR, #10, 13.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.6 spg, Sanford School/Wilmington, Del.). Trevor Cooney made the difficult decision to redshirt as a freshman. It wasn't a matter of Cooney not being ready to play at the college level. He was just caught in a numbers game. Syracuse had veteran guards Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters returning last season. Triche and Waiters figured to split time at the two-guard position. Cooney's classmate, Michael Carter-Williams, would be the fourth guard, in theory backing up Jardine at the point when in reality that duty would go to Triche.

So Cooney set about preparing himself for the 2012-13 season. Boeheim said Cooney logged more practice time than any other SU player last season. Cooney topped those practices with shooting sessions and weight-room workouts. He added eight pounds of muscle to his frame, while reducing his body fat from 6.6 percent to 4.6 percent. Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara dubbed Cooney "Muscles."

"He worked as hard or harder than anybody," Boeheim said. "That's unusual when you're not playing. He worked very hard, and as a result he'll be ready to go."

Cooney will back up Triche at the off guard spot, allowing the senior guard to rest or move to the point to spell Carter-Williams.

Cooney will give Syracuse the type of 3-point shooter that it lacked last season. When the Orange starts its fast-break offense, Cooney will be the one flaring to the wing or the corner for a spot-up 3-pointer. But don't label Cooney as solely a shooter. He's got size, strength and athleticism.

"I just think his ability as a guard is important," Boeheim said. "I'm not concerned with any ability more than another. He can shoot the ball, but he can put the ball on the floor. He can make plays. He's got good size. He's physical. He's not a guy we look at as just being a shooter. We think he's a good player."

F-JERAMI GRANT (6-8, 203 lbs., FR, #3, 12.6 ppg, DeMatha Catholic HS/Hyattsville, Md). Jerami Grant's family tree must have a basket and a backboard nailed to it. Grant's father, Harvey, played 12 years in the NBA. The elder Grant played at Clemson and Oklahoma, where he was a member of the Sooners' 1988 Final Four team. Jerami Grant's uncle, Horace, spent 17 years in the NBA, winning NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. Grant's older brothers, Jerai and Jerian, both played college basketball. Jerai played at Clemson, while Jerian will be a third-year sophomore at Notre Dame this season.

Jerami Grant helped noted high school power DeMatha Catholic to a 30-6 record last season. He was chosen to the Washington Post's All-Met fourth-team. He was selected to play in the Jordan Brand Classic, where he scored 10 points in just 19 minutes. Last summer, he made the USA that won the gold medal in the FIBA U18 Americas tournament in Brazil.

Grant has the look of the prototypical Syracuse forward. He's long and lean. He can drive to the basket and has a developing jump shot. There were rumors over the summer that Grant had grown, possibly inching up to 6-10. In reality, Grant measures 6-8, but the SU coaches believe he'll eventually be as tall or taller than his dad and his uncle, both of whom stood 6-9.

"He's an unknown," Boeheim said. "You have to wait and see. I think you need to wait and see with all freshmen. You just never know. He's got very, very good potential. He's long. He gets up and down the court. You just have to wait on freshmen until you get a chance to see what they can do."

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B+
BENCH/DEPTH: B+
FRONTCOURT: A-
INTANGIBLES: A-

Charles Dickens should have written the story of Syracuse's 2011-12 season, for it was indeed the best of times and the worst of times. Under a seemingly endless cloud of scandals, the Orange put together one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Orange recorded a school-record 34 victories, and its 17-1 record in the Big East matched the best finish ever in the conference.

But in two dramatic examples of the state of today's game, Syracuse lost a pair of key contributors to the NBA in Fab Melo and Dion Waiters despite the fact that a year earlier Melo was a bust and Waiters was a malcontent about to transfer. Throw in the losses of Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph and SU coach Jim Boeheim would seem to have a rebuilding project on his hands.

The good news is that Boeheim has all the materials needed to build a winner. The Orange has plenty of experience in seniors Brandon Triche and James Southerland, plus juniors C.J. Fair and Baye Keita. Many expect breakout seasons from sophomores Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams. The freshmen class of Dajuan Coleman and Jerami Grant along with redshirt freshman Trevor Cooney is oozing with talent.

"I think we have seven guys that we think can play, and we think the two freshmen certainly are playing right away," Boeheim said. "We feel we've got a nucleus of players and a couple young guys that are good players."

Expect Syracuse to challenge for a Big East title in its last season in the conference and present itself as a Final Four contender by year's end.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.