It’s almost that time again. Basketball season is upon us. And in the sleepy central New York city of Syracuse, excitement on campus is reaching critical mass.
The main reason for such excitement is because this year’s iteration of the Orange could be good. In fact, they could be really good. This team made the Sweet 16 last season and it’s impossible to see a way in which they got worse.
Last year’s recap
Last year’s entrance into the NCAA Tournament was a surprise. The Orange rested on the bubble after a season marred by injury. Coach Jim Boeheim play only six players in a game against Virginia and fielded a former walk-on, Braedon Bayer, in ACC games.
Syracuse faltered down the stretch, losing four of their last six, including a 15 point humbling at Boston College that many considered the final nail in their proverbial coffin.
Somehow, the Orange squeezed in and miraculously regained health at the same time. They disposed of Arizona State in the play-in game and quickly proved they belonged at the tournament with hard earned wins in Detroit against TCU and third-seeded Michigan State.
While eventually losing to bitter rival Duke in a four-point loss in which the Blue Devils used Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone against them, the Orange still showed that they have talent.
This year in brief
Syracuse has been given the No. 16 spot in the preseason AP rankings, suggesting the national media see the improvement this season too. Expectations definitely match up with that.
But Syracuse’s addition to the rankings does come with the added nuisance of them being in the conference with the most Top 25 teams. The ACC has seven teams in the rankings with the usual suspects like Duke, North Carolina and Virginia making an appearance alongside FSU, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
The good news on that front is that Syracuse will have a battle-tested squad come tournament time and, if they can at least somewhat live up to preseason expectations, they should be all but guaranteed a tournament bid.
The bad news is that they can’t hide from expectations and then surprise in March. Despite not making the tournament in 2017, Syracuse bookended their last three seasons with a Final Four run in 2015 and a Sweet 16 run last season. Both runs were massive surprises.
This year they won’t be able to be a darling as everyone is expecting them to be good. Living up to those expectations is something the Orange usually don’t react well to.
Notable additions and subtractions
Tyus Battle coming back from flirting with the NBA over the summer remains the biggest ‘addition’ to a team that retains pretty much every major piece from a year ago. The starting shooting guard for the Orange was their leading scorer last season. Even though there are plenty of scoring options on this team, it would have been difficult to replace almost 20 points a game.
Speaking of scoring, the 2018 season wasn’t ideal in that regard. The Orange were 317th in the nation last season with 66.6 PPG. So adding Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim to their guard depth through recruiting will help. Carey averaged over 20 PPG in all three of his seasons at Montclair Immaculate Conception while Boeheim averaged a staggering 26.3 PPG in his final season at Jamesville-Dewitt.
Syracuse also lost a couple of players via transfer as Matthew Moyer and graduate transfer Bayer left, likely due to lack of playing time available.
The biggest thing for Syracuse was adding depth, which they did. Health was the biggest concern last year and strengthening the bottom of the roster will be useful should the injury bug strike again. If it doesn’t though, the Orange could be in for a special season.
A national championship. No seriously. Everyone knows there are better teams on paper right now in college basketball but sleep on this team at your peril. The Orange will be that good this season if everything breaks right.
Battle coming back is great, and point guard Frank Howard helps keep an already solid backcourt together, but the Orange having the kind of success we’re talking about requires a different player to make a significant leap.
Oshae Brissett was Syracuse’s best player last season. The freshman forward grew with every game of his opening year and will need to be better than he was last season to take the Orange to new heights.
Battle scored more points, Howard had more assists, but Brissett’s boards combined with 15 points a game made him the deadliest weapon. Brisset had two and a half more defensive rebounds than anyone else on a team, including a 7-foot-3 center. He only had half a rebound less than Pascal Chukwu too.
The defensive effort was critical to a team that played tight games toward the end of the season and is famous for coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. The Orange’s best case relies on Brissett being able to continue his efforts on the boards at both end while expanding his offensive game. Something he has already shown flashes he can do.
With more shooting arriving in the form of freshmen, and an old guard returning eager to prove that they belong at the next level, Brissett is the swing man to help bridge the gap. He’s experienced enough to be trusted by the veterans and young enough to relate to the newbies. A deep tournament run could be imminent.
Just as easy as it is to get excited about this season, it is also easy to be nervous because, well, Syracuse.
Injuries almost ruined last season. Four players started all 37 games but there was a period in conference play where Boeheim was only able to field six players, one of whom was a walk-on. The Orange were relying on freshman Matthew Moyer (who has since transferred) and the aforementioned Bayer (ditto) in crunch time during important ACC matches.
The conference wasn’t nearly as strong as it feels this year and another serious injury plague this season could derail the season at any point. Injuries to any of Brissett, Howard, or Battle would hurt massively. With depth looking like a strength this year, injuries to role players who figure to see significant time like forward Marek Dolezaj or Howard Washington (who missed time last year) could also really hurt.
The worst case is obvious really. The core was worked really hard last season and by the time conference play rolls around, many of the key players for the Orange miss time and they struggle in a loaded conference. If that happens, and the Orange miss the tournament for the second time in four years, this season will be one of the bigger disappointments in a program history full of them.
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