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mccullough2As the Syracuse basketball team prepares to open the season on Friday against either Kennesaw State or Kennesaw Mountain Landis (I’m not really sure – either way, let’s win this one for Shoeless Joe Jackson!), it feels like a good time to break down some of the keys to the upcoming season for the Orange. By the looks of things it could be a tougher year than we’ve had in awhile, based solely on the massive quantity of unknowns heading into the season.

Of course, just because there are unknowns that will wind up dictating the season doesn’t mean it can’t still be a success. After all, this year won’t be the first time the Orange have had to rely on a big time freshman forward and a less heralded freshman point guard. The problem there is that the last two times that happened wound up being polar opposites in terms of success. The first was with Carmelo and McNamara, while the second was with Donte Greene and Jonny Flynn, and the so-called “Dynasty” that limped its way into the NIT.

Here’s hoping that the combination of Chris McCullough and Kaleb Joseph will be more akin to Melo and G-Mac.

Through two exhibition games, a few things have become pretty clear. One is that Kaleb Joseph looks to have a great feel for the game, and another is that McCullough has all of the athletic talent in the world but still needs to add some strength and continue to refine his game. Both have looked good, and that’s a great first step since if the Orange are going to have any success this year, it’s going to be largely dependent upon those two.

Another thing that should have Syracuse fans a bit nervous as we head into the regular season is something that’s become all too familiar: the lack of consistent perimeter shooting. Trevor Cooney has all of the tools to become an elite shooter, but his mechanics have taken some weird hits over the last couple of years. On the one hand, he’s always had a tendency to over-jump on his jumper, and on the other hand, he’s a weight room warrior and the added muscle is pretty clearly hindering his shooting mechanics. It’s similar to what happened when Donovan McNabb was the quarterback of the Orange, and his excessive weight lifting caused his throwing motion to get a little funky, resulting in a lot of low passes because he didn’t have his full range of motion.

There’s something similar going on with Cooney, it would appear. From what I know, the staff is actually aware that his bulkiness is causing some problems and have asked him to tone it down a bit. Hopefully he’ll lay off the bicep curls and focus more on getting his fluidity and flexibility back to make him a smoother jump shooter.

But even if Cooney comes around, who steps up behind him as our next best shooter? The likeliest candidates are Mike Gbinije, Buss Patterson, BJ Johnson, and Joseph. Patterson has shown some great flashes of being a burst of energy off the bench, but looks like more of a streak shooter than anything at this point. Johnson came in with a reputation as a lethal marksman, but he’s still just so damn skinny that it’s hard to imagine him getting much run simply because ┬áhe’s going to get pushed around by most of the forwards, and even a lot of guards, he’ll be matching up against.

Joseph certainly has the ability to hit the deep ball, though it’s probably best to expect freshman year Jonny Flynn, rather than freshman year Gerry McNamara in terms of shooting ability. He’ll hit some, but probably won’t finish the year hitting more than, say, 30-33% from deep. Defenses will have to respect him, but they won’t necessarily fear his outside prowess.

Gbinije is the interesting guy in this equation. Last year he looked a bit timid both as the new guy in Jim Boeheim’s system, as well as the guy making a transition to a completely new position as the team’s backup point guard. However, he showed some flashes of real offensive talent last season, and if the two exhibition games are any indication his confidence has grown by leaps and bounds, and he’s going to be ready to produce this year. Don’t be surprised if Gbinije finishes the season challenging Cooney for the top percentage on the team, particularly if Cooney can’t get his issues under control.

Moving down to the low post, it feels a little weird to say that this is very clearly Rakeem Christmas’s team, considering how much time he’s spent lounging in Boeheim’s doghouse over the years. This season, however, there’s no Baye Keita to plug in when Boeheim wants to chew him out, and Christmas has looked terrific when he’s been on the court in the exhibition games. He’s a senior who understands this is his team, and he needs to consistently produce. He’s always looked like capable scorer, but hasn’t consistently gotten the ball in his first three seasons. This year, don’t be surprised if there’s a concerted effort to feed Rak the rock. It’s completely feasible that he could put up numbers along the lines of 12 points, eight boards, and two or three blocked shots per game this year, if he can only stay out of foul trouble.

Because if he gets into foul trouble, well…

I don’t want to dwell on that proposition very much to be perfectly honest, because with lingering injury issues surrounding DaJuan Coleman and going by how ridiculously raw Chino Obokoh looks, the Orange could be in some serious trouble if they have to play long stretches with Christmas on the bench. It’s conceivable that McCullough could slide over to the five, Tyler Roberson to the four, and Gbinije to the three, but that’s probably not a situation Jim Boeheim wants to find himself in if he can help it.

One thing is for sure, though, and that’s the fact that rebounding should be significantly better this year with the arrival of McCullough and the maturation of Roberson. Roberson looks like he may be destined to be Boeheim’s designated whipping boy this year, though, so it will be interesting to see how that situation plays out as the season progresses. Does the sophomore with a ton of talent and upside have the fortitude to overcome JB’s tongue lashings?

Moving away from the specific positions, however, one thing that Syracuse fans can almost certainly look forward to is an increased tempo and, hopefully, more points on the board. Syracuse struggled a bit to score down the stretch last year, but with an improved presence on both the offensive and defensive glass and the addition of the super quick, athletic Joseph running the point, you can expect the Orange to get out in transition a lot more often this season. Tyler Ennis, for as great as he was as a freshman, simply wasn’t built for an uptempo style. Joseph will likely turn the ball over more often, but should also help produce more scoring opportunities by virtue of simply speeding up the game.

Over the next couple days, I’ll be looking at some of the individual players and positional battles to get a little more in depth. Until then, uh…may the force be with you?

Yeah, let’s go with that. I don’t think anyone else is using it these days, right?

 

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