If this were a movie, that would be the direction written in the screenplay. That’s was legitimately my first reaction when I sat down to reflect on 2017 for Syracuse athletics.
There were certainly some highlights for Syracuse in the last calendar year, most notably Justyn Knight winning an individual national championship and former keeper (and Baldwinsville native) starting for Toronto FC as they won the Major League Soccer title.
But let’s be real, here. If you’re anything like me, you love all things Syracuse, but your focus is primarily on football and basketball. I didn’t grow up in Central New York, and my high school got rid of lacrosse right before I got there (apparently something about the guys on the team skipping practice and games in favor of getting high and living up to every stereotype you’ve ever had about lacrosse players), so while I love lax, it’s not on my main Syracuse radar.
And 2017 was… rough, for a Syracuse fan, when you boil it down to basketball and football. There were certainly some highlights, of course. Most notably the win over Clemson, which should have been a program-changer but was followed by yet another season-ending injury to Eric Dungey – the third year in a row we’ve seen his season end prematurely.
Basketball in early 2017 was pretty much a shitshow. Again, there were small things to like here and there. But there’s no denying last season was a tremendous disappointment, followed by a tumultuous offseason that saw key recruits go elsewhere and Taurean Thompson bail on the program.
But still, as we enter 2018… I actually feel pretty hopeful. I like the direction things are headed, even if we haven’t seen the results we’d probably like. Sure, football finished 4-8 for the third straight year, and the end of the year was an absolute disaster. But there were plenty of signs that, moving forward, this program is headed in the right direction. Outside of those last few games, with no Eric Dungey, the team was competitive in every game, against every opponent. That’s something we haven’t been able to say about Orange football in a long time.
And the recruiting work being done by Dino Babers and his staff is impressive. I won’t get into certain guys who won’t be a part of the class, because… and just trust me… there’s much more to that story. But being able to land a guy like Chance Amie, and snagging guys like Qadir White and Trill Williams and Ed Hendrix is worth standing up and taking note of. This 2018 class has a chance to be one of the best the Orange have put together in years (on paper, at least). And there’s more to come, too. When Jawhar Jordan and Akeem Dixon sign in February (which they’re expected to do, so enough with people wringing their hands over the fact they didn’t sign early), it’ll give us two more dynamic players for the backfield. Mychale Salahuddin, one of the very best running back recruits in the nation, is set to officially visit next month, and we’ve got a couple weapons in our corner in that recruitment: his teammate Ed Hendrix, and former teammate Juan Wallace.
The pieces are setting up nicely for a strong future for Babers and the Orange football program. The 2018 schedule doesn’t get much easier, but there are certainly between 6 and 8 wins to be had, particularly if the team makes as big a jump from 2017 to 2018 as they did from 2016 to 2017.
Basketball, meanwhile, is also trending up. Let’s be honest here, even before we get to tonight’s game against Virginia Tech (which is a game that, honestly, I’m thinking we probably lose): this team has overachieved so far this year. A team with basically no returning experience outside of Tyus Battle (and, to a lesser degree, Frank Howard) is somehow 11-2, and in better shape to make a run at the NCAA Tournament than any of us could have expected.
And they’re doing it… well, yes, in ugly fashion, mostly… but also through grit and hard work and scrappy effort that we didn’t see from last year’s team. Guys like Oshae Brissett and Matty Moyer and Marek Dolezaj are giving every ounce of themselves to help the team win, and even if the result isn’t always pretty, it’s a team that’s never going to quit and will fight to the final whistle.
That’s refreshing, particularly after watching some of the sulky attitudes on last year’s roster. This roster isn’t nearly as talented as last year’s, but it’s certainly easier to root for simply because of the fight exhibited every game. Nothing against Tyler Lydon and John Gillon and Andrew White – three guys I liked very much – but clearly there’s a lot more selflessness this season, and better overall chemistry.
And help is on the way, too. Syracuse has one of its strongest classes in awhile coming in next year, with Darius Bazley, Jalen Carey, and Buddy Boeheim (not to mention Elijah Hughes, who becomes eligible next year). This year, the team is really struggling to find offense outside of Tyus Battle and, to a much lesser degree, Frank Howard and Brissett. That shouldn’t be a problem next season.
Battle will most likely be gone, but with Bazley, Carey, Boeheim, and Hughes, you’re adding four guys who can score the basketball – and we won’t be losing much defensively, either. Battle is very good at the top of the zone, so I’m not slighting him; instead, I’m suggesting we have the guys in place to adequately replace him in a year.
So yeah, I think things are looking up. Accuse me of sporting orange-colored glasses if you want (which I’d happily do, by the way, because I think they’d look pretty delightful). But I like where things are heading. And I can’t wait to see how things play out in 2018.