Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim will bring one of his most experienced teams into his 36th campaign. The Orange will feature four returning starters along with several reserves who played key roles off the bench last season. In addition, Boeheim has added three standout freshmen, including two McDonald’s All-Americans, into his rotation. It all makes for a tantalizing 2011-12 season — except for one problematic issue: How will Syracuse make up for the loss of starting power forward Rick Jackson?
Other than Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, Jackson meant more to his team’s success last season than any player in the Big East. The powerful 6'9" forward led the Big East in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage. His 35.6 minutes played not only led the Orange, but were an astonishing figure for a 245-pound muscle-man who loved the physical play in the low post. “Ricky meant a lot to us last year, no question,’’ Boeheim says. “We don’t have anyone on this team that’s exactly like him, but we do have options.’’
While Boeheim figures out who replaces Jackson at power forward, he’ll have the luxury of penciling in veterans at every other position. The backcourt of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche returns intact. Senior forward Kris Joseph should vie for All-America honors. At center, Boeheim will employ the sophomore tandem of Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita, both of whom showed flashes of promise as freshmen.
Key Orange Stat: 6.8
Syracuse averaged a league-high 6.8 blocks in Big East games last season. The Orange, however, must replace Rick Jackson and his league-leading 2.8 blocks per game.
Joseph led the Orange in scoring last year and improved his 3-point shooting from 22.0 percent as a sophomore to 36.6 percent last year. An offseason procedure on his knee should also return some explosiveness to his game. “I think Kris will have a very good senior season,’’ Boeheim says. “He gained a lot of experience as a first-time starter last year.’’
While Joseph fills the role of the prototypical Syracuse forward who knocks down the jumper and slashes to the hoop, he’s not at all like Jackson. Melo and Keita should take huge steps forward, but neither is expected to score as much as Jackson did.
C.J. Fair, who averaged 6.4 points on 54.3 percent shooting, could be an intriguing frontcourt partner for Joseph. Fair is a slender 6'8", 203 pounds, but he has a nose for the ball. James Southerland, a 6'8" junior who possesses extreme range on his 3-point shot, is another option.
Rakeem Christmas, a 6'9" freshman, will factor into the equation at either power forward or center. Christmas lacks polish on offense, but he’s a shot-blocker extraordinaire.
Even though both had extensive experience, Jardine and Triche spent last season adjusting to new roles. Triche moved from the point to the off-guard spot, while Jardine went from sixth man to starting at the point.
Jardine led the Big East in assists. He showed the willingness to share the ball and take big shots. However, he was prone to lapses in judgment, and his shooting percentage dipped to 41.5 percent. Much will be expected of Jardine in his second year on the job.
Triche, meanwhile, struggled in his switch from facilitator to scorer. He played passively at times — not what coaches want from their best pure shooter. After a poor start, Triche finished the year averaging 11.1 points and shooting 33.3 percent from 3-point range. Expect both those numbers to improve.
What really sets Syracuse’s backcourt apart is its depth. Dion Waiters is a dynamic offensive player. His upper-body strength gives him the ability to take the ball into traffic and score. Michael Carter-Williams, a McDonald’s All-American, will eventually give Boeheim the big guard he craves for the top of his 2-3 zone defense. Trevor Cooney, another freshman, probably won’t play much this year, but he could be the next Andy Rautins in terms of outside shooting.
While replacing Jackson will be a challenge, there’s just too much talent here to ignore. Boeheim will once again field the kind of team that attracts 30,000-plus crowds to the Carrier Dome — one that wins and plays exciting ball. The potential starting lineup of Jardine, Triche, Joseph, Fair and Melo will stretch opposing defenses. Boeheim will supplement that starting five with the likes of Waiters, Southerland and Keita, as well as the freshmen, Carter-Williams and Christmas. Syracuse will fight for the Big East title and should factor into the national championship conversation.
Big East Predicition: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Elite Eight