So this is the new normal for the Syracuse Orange.
The cloud of an NCAA investigation, and the uncertainty that came with it, has been lifted. Syracuse will be docked three scholarships per year for the next four years. Among the NCAA’s other penalties, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim will be suspended for the Orange’s first nine ACC games this season. In March, Boeheim announced that he would coach for three more seasons, at which point longtime assistant Mike Hopkins will take over.
After all that turmoil, things do seem fairly normal at Syracuse.
The Orange will miss center Rakeem Christmas, who made a huge jump in production as senior, and power forward Chris McCullough, who bolted for the NBA despite playing just 16 games as a freshman after a tearing the ACL in his right knee. However, a strong perimeter game, led by a pair of fifth-year seniors in Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, should have the Orange competing for an NCAA Tournament berth once again.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
More than anything else, Syracuse’s success will depend on the health of DaJuan Coleman. The 6'9", 255-pound big man hasn’t played since January 2014 after suffering the second knee injury of his career. Coleman, who will be a fourth-year junior, hasn’t played an injury-free season since his senior year of high school. Now, Syracuse is looking to him as its starting center.
“I think it would be impossible for most of us to work out for two years every day, day in, day out with no reward,” Boeheim says of Coleman’s long road to recovery. “I’m so hopeful that that reward will come for this guy next year.”
Behind Coleman will be sophomore Chinonso Obokoh, who averaged just 6.8 minutes per game a year ago, and Moustapha Diagne, a 6'8" freshman who is probably more suited to the power forward position.
Much is expected of junior Tyler Roberson, who started 19 games after McCullough went down in January. He can be a force on the offensive boards. “I think he’s shown just glimpses of what he can do,” Boeheim says.
Tyler Lydon is a lanky freshman with a soft touch from the 3-point line. Big guards Gbinije and Malachi Richardson could spend time in the frontcourt at small forward.
Syracuse Facts & Figures
Last season: 18-13, 9-9 ACC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2014
ACC Projection: Eighth
Postseason projection: First Round
In Gbinije, Cooney and Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse returns all three perimeter starters. Cooney can be inconsistent, but he still averaged 13.4 points per game and led the Orange in 3-pointers for the second straight season. Boeheim says he could be in for a big senior year. Gbinije split time between the point and small forward last year. He made 39.2 percent of his 3-point attempts, and his 107 assists were just 12 shy of Joseph’s total.
“If Rakeem Christmas wasn’t here, Michael Gbinije would’ve been the most improved player on our team,” Boeheim says. “He’s certainly among the top five most improved players in the ACC.”
Don’t be surprised if Boeheim gives Gbinije even more time at the point this season. That’s because Joseph struggled as a freshman. He made just 37.6 percent of his shots and dipped to 20 percent from 3-point range. His defense wasn’t great, either.
If Gbinije is at the point, Boeheim could give more time to Richardson, a freshman who can drill the 3 and whose height gives him the ability the play big at the top of SU’s zone or slide to the backline. Frank Howard, a 6'5" freshman, can play either guard position.
Key Losses: C Rakeem Christmas, F Chris McCullough
Top Players: G Kaleb Joseph, G Trevor Cooney, G/F Michael Gbinije, F Tyler Roberson, C DaJuan Coleman
Freshman guard Malachi Richardson could play a key role as a 3-point threat on the wing opposite veteran Trevor Cooney. Tyler Lydon, another outside shooting threat, has the ability to play either forward position. Moustapha Diagne is a natural power forward who might see time at center as well. Frank Howard, a combo guard, will provide backcourt depth as a freshman.
Is any program coming off a more difficult year than Syracuse? The season started with a hearing in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions and ended with the release of the NCAA’s report the day before the season finale. In between, Coleman missed the entire year due to injury, and McCullough went down for the season in mid-January. On top of that, Syracuse issued a self-imposed ban on postseason play. The program’s 18 wins last year marked the fewest for the Orange since the 1981-82 team went 16–13.
This is a new year, and even though Syracuse will have to deal with the NCAA’s penalties over the next four years, the SU coaches and players at least know what they’re facing. Armed with that knowledge, a core of underrated veterans and the promise of a strong recruiting class, Syracuse figures to surpass the 20-win mark and return to the NCAA Tournament.