September 6th, 2006
Basketball Preview: Syracuse
Syracuse could end up
anywhere from third to sixth in the conference this year. The Orange return
four starters, and the only player of consequence Coach Jim Boeheim lost was
Gerry McNamara, who, aside from the Big East Tournament, had a somewhat
disappointing season in terms of shooting (35% overall and 33% on
three-pointers). Still, his clutch play and leadership will definitely be
missed, as will his 16 ppg and 5.9 apg.
However, all three frontcourt starters – Demetris Nichols at the 3, Terrence
Roberts at the 4, and Darryl Watkins at the 5 - improved substantially from
their sophomore to their junior seasons and should continue to improve this
year. The biggest improvement will probably be in terms of consistency as
all three looked terrific at times and horrible at others.
Nichols, 6’8”, averaged
13.3 ppg and 5.8 rpg last year in 33.3 mpg. More than half of his shots
(201 of 386) came from behind the three-point line. His percentage on treys
– 36% - means that opposing teams have to respect his shot from there.
Nichols, however, was plagued by inconsistency. For example, in the
Orange’s first game against UConn he scored 28 points; in the second he
scored two. During the conference season he had one stretch in which he
scored in double figures seven games in a row. During another stretch he
scored in single digits five games in a row. For Syracuse to reach its
potential this season, Nichols will have to stop the roller coaster ride.
Roberts was the team’s
leading rebounder at 7.6 rpg (third among returning Big East players). He
added 10.7 ppg in 31.9 mpg. He grabbed 10 or more rebounds in nine games
and had nine rebounds in five others. He is clearly a force on the
boards. Unlike Nichols, Roberts generally shoots from 12 feet or closer,
which explains his impressive shooting percentage of 56%. His free-throw
percentage, however, was a miserable 42%. As with Nichols, Boeheim never
knew what to expect from Roberts in terms of scoring. In February, for
example, he had one five-game period in which he scored 4, 3, 3, 16, and 2
points. In March he had a six-game period in which he scored 13, 16, 16, 0,
13, and 16 points. If Roberts can avoid some of those non-productive games,
he could end up with all-conference honors.
Darryl Watkins, 6’11”, is
a decent athlete, but he has what might be called “stone hands” as he often
had trouble handling passes in the paint, which led to missed opportunities
for easy baskets. There’s no simple formula for developing “soft hands,”
but the Orange can’t afford to come away empty in such situations. Watkins
averaged 7.1 ppg and 7.3 rpg. As the season progressed, he became more
effective on the offensive end. The last nine games of the season he
averaged 10.3 ppg compared to 5.4 ppg in the 10 previous games. If he can
continue that trend and average around 10 ppg this year, it will also open
up more opportunities for teammates. Watkins’ contributions, however, are
not limited to the offensive end of the court. He is the conference’s
leading returning shot blocker at 2.8 blocked shots per game. He also
forces opposing players to alter their shots even if he doesn’t block them.
Sophomore Eric Devendorf, a dangerous offensive player, returns at one guard
spot. He can shoot from deep but also drive. He averaged 12.2 ppg on 45%
shooting, including 38% from behind the arc. Those stats should climb a bit
as he sometimes tended to force shots. With experience and maturity, he’ll
do a better job of determining when to shoot and when not to. Devendorf
does need to work on driving to his right. Despite being right-handed, he
likes to drive to his left. Defenses began to overplay him that way, so he
has to force them to play him straight up. There is no question that
Devendorf is one of the best shooters in the league. He could easily become
one of the top scorers – as in 15-16 ppg – this year.
The big question for Boeheim is who's going to run the show at point. Josh
Wright returns as the only true point guard, but he hasn't shown enough his
first two years to be the leading contender for the job. He’s quick and a
solid ball handler, but he’s not much of a shooter or scorer. He hit on
only 23% of his trey attempts, but if he can get the ball to the right
people at the right time, he should be able to earn more than the 12.9 mpg
he had last year. The primary reason, though, that Wright will continue to
come off the bench is the addition of freshman Paul Harris.
Harris is the highest ranked recruit in the conference and the early pick
for Freshman of the Year. He is an amazing athlete who possesses incredible
quickness and astonishing leaping ability along with superior strength. At
Notre Dame Prep, he put some moves on defenders that made him look like the
next Dwyane Wade. In short, Harris can take over a game, and he can do it
in a variety of ways. He has to be on the court as much as possible for the
Orange this year. While he’s not a true point guard, he handles the ball
well enough and is a good enough passer to fill that role. He will be one
of the most exciting, most entertaining players in the league.
Another freshman, Mike Jones (#44 on RSCI) will give the Orange added depth
and flexibility as he can play either wing. Still, he won’t get significant
minutes, not with Devendorf and Nichols ahead of him.
The primary area of
concern is depth on the interior. Only sophomore Arinze Onuaku has any
experience, and he averaged 2.0 ppg in 8.4 mpg. If Watkins and/or Roberts
suffer an injury or get into foul trouble, Boeheim doesn’t have many
Orange will be very, very tough on the boards, and they have a lot of
potential firepower. Defensively, Harris is far superior to McNamara, so
Syracuse should be better than last year on that end of the court. Harris'
athleticism will create a few more turnovers, which should lead to more easy
baskets in transition.
Syracuse also won't have the distractions caused by the tension last season
between Boeheim and Louie McCroskey since the disgruntled wing player
transferred at the end of the year. Consequently, team chemistry should be
In a word, Syracuse, especially its starting five, is scary. But due to so
much inconsistency last year, the question must still be asked, “Which
Syracuse team will show up on any given night - the one that was embarrassed
by De Paul or the one that won the conference tournament?”
The latter option is more likely. The Orange isn’t deep enough to win the
regular season conference title, but they have three seniors and two very
talented underclassmen. That should be enough to finish third.
- Predicted Finish:
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