|This could be a season of high drama...|
If you like a basketball program with more intrigue than wins and losses, then you need to follow the 2014-2015 Syracuse Men's Basketball team. On the court, there's a young team with (again) a freshman starting point guard and projections to be an upper crust, but not elite, team in the country. Off the court, we have a head coach entering his 39th season at the helm who's plugging his newly-release autobiography everywhere -- including twitter; an NCAA investigation centered around academics and benefits of the basketball program; a reinstated slander lawsuit against said head coach; and a local product who hasn't seen much action the last two years and whose return to play remains unclear.
Losing CJ Fair and Baye Moussa Keita to graduation last year, along with Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant to early draft entry, Syracuse has some huge holes to fill. Kaleb Joseph comes in to fill the freshman point guard role occupied by Ennis last year; Rakeem Christmas steps up to be the senior leader; and a mix of last year's reserves and incoming freshman round out the lineup and bench players. This young group has looked competent in two exhibition games, and we're hearing decent things out of practice. But they will really need that real game experience, and the extra playing time to develop chemistry among themselves, in order to reach the heights of last year's team. Luckily, the typical early-season non-conference schedule allows Syracuse to do just that.
The real first test comes November 20 at Madison Square Garden when Syracuse plays California in the 2K Classic. That's followed the next day by either Iowa or Texas. But really, those games will pale in comparison to the hype that should accompany the December 2 match-up in Ann Arbor as Syracuse faces Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. This is rematch of the 2013 NCAA semifinal in Atlanta, which, as you may recall, was won by the Wolverines.
Other intriguing non-conference games include former Big East foes St. John's (who visit the Dome on December 6) and Villanova (who hosts Syracuse on December 20). I think it's great that efforts have been made to schedule former Big East rivals. This isn't a Georgetown year, but we'll see that soon, and I'm sure we'll find UConn in a few years as well.
The ACC slate is highlighted by home games against Duke and newcomer Louisville. Other tough games including Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Miami, and Florida State round out the Dome contests (among others). All of those teams played Syracuse tough last year, so if there's one thing to learn from last year, it's to not think of any ACC team as a pushover.
Orange success this year, on the court, will be dictated by how well the team comes together and matures; how well Trevor Cooney shoots the ball (and, consistently); and what sort of leader Rakeem Christmas can be. This team has the talent, top to bottom, to compete with the best teams in the country, but they can't let themselves fall into the same late-season slumps the last two seasons have brought.
How this team responds to off-court issues will also play a role. An NCAA decision on infractions/sanctions could come within a few weeks. Worst case scenario for this team would be a postseason ban. A loss of scholarships would only hurt future teams; vacating prior wins is more of a pride thing than anything (it sucks, but shouldn't effect the currently players). Boeheim & staff have done an excellent job keeping those off-court issues from negatively impacting the play of the team in the past (remember how awesome that team was when the Bernie Fine stuff broke?). So I have confidence that the team will weather that storm just fine.
I won't provide solid numbers, but I see this team finishing the regular season with less than 10 losses, advancing to the ACC Tournament title game, and falling in the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
We'll provide a more comprehensive ACC preview prior to the start of conference play, so check back here near the end of December, and/or check for the link on Twitter from @jbren and @BH_Orange44.