Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before: “Jim Boeheim only plays three guards.”

Okay, you can put your hand down now.

It is true that Coach Boeheim usually leans on a backcourt rotation of three players, but I for one am hopeful that will change this year. Syracuse would be a much better team if four guards got substantial minutes.

In Wednesday night‘s first exhibition game, a 30-point shellacking of Division II Southern New Hampshire, three guards played: junior PG Frank Howard, sophomore SG Tyus Battle and freshman PG Howard Washington.  

Fifth-year graduate student combo guard Geno Thorpe had to sit out due to a lingering ankle issue, or he obviously would have been part of the rotation as well. In an exhibition game, all healthy scholarship players see the court. In his postgame presser, Boeheim was guardedly optimistic that Thorpe would be good to go for SU’s second and final practice game tuneup against Southern Connecticut State this coming Monday.  Regardless, we do know a healthy Thorpe is going to get a lot of minutes when the games count.

So let’s break it down.  

Tyus Battle is going to play 35+ minutes a game, and that’s a very conservative estimate. Duh. He’s the best player on the team and will do the 40-minute ironman routine on occasion, though this year there is enough backcourt depth to avoid that. Tyus will have a tremendous burden this year, being the focus of every opponent’s defensive game plan, so keeping him fresh and healthy is of paramount importance. Boeheim might be concerned SU won’t be able to score with his star player sitting beside him, so that’s worth monitoring.

Geno Thorpe brings versatility, scoring, and a 3-point shot (he made nearly 40% of his treys last season for South Florida). The coaching staff has also raved about his defensive ability and how quickly he’s adapted to a new system. Plus, his experience over his first four years at Penn State and USF will be a big asset to a very green Orange squad.

Frank Howard is a junior and now full-go after offseason core muscles surgery. Despite struggling mightily for large stretches and showing a lot of immaturity last season, Howard is going to play and could very well be the opening night starter at lead guard against Cornell on November 10, in what I’m calling the inaugural Jimmy B Classic [Coach Boeheim’s son, James, is a freshman for the Big Red, in case you didn’t know].

I think Howard will get every chance to be a big part of the rotation, but a lot depends on his demeanor as much as it does his production. Last season Howard would visibly sulk when the going got tough. This year if Howard faces some adversity and reverts into Frank the Crank, expect a quick hook and a spot on the bench.

Which brings me to Howard Washington. When Washington committed to Syracuse a lot of fans were not overjoyed. Sure, they were glad to get a solid player like Washington. But after being jilted at the altar by top point guard target Quade Green, to many SU fans the under-the-radar Washington was just filling an area of need. “He might be a decent player down the line but he won’t help us right away” was the general consensus.

I think that is dead wrong.

This team is going to struggle in the half court. They lost a ton of outside shooting and scoring punch from last year. Their only proven outside shooter who has donned the Orange uniform is Battle. That’s where Washington can be very impactful, even in year one.

Washington is a very solid shooter, with a confident stroke from deep. He also brings a calm demeanor, excellent court vision, and leadership. He won’t play like a wide-eyed freshman. While not being blessed with elite athleticism, Washington makes up for it with a steady hand and the ability to guide a team under duress. Well, at least he showed that in high school; this level is obviously a major proving ground. It also won’t hurt that Washington has built-in chemistry with former high school teammate Oshae Brissett, as they both starred at Athlete Institute last year. I’ll resist the urge to call him General Washington out of respect to Syracuse legend Sherman Douglas.

So how would a four guard rotation work? Well, I think the point guard slot should be very flexible. Obviously Thorpe has to play some lead guard but he also will man the shooting guard slot as well. When that happens, Tyus could slide up to the small forward slot. Tyus is more than capable of thriving at that position on both ends, and would compare favorably to Malachi Richardson two years ago. Some might think that playing three guards could expose SU on the boards, but I’d argue that Tyus can more than hold his own on the glass if challenged to do so. Tell Tyus he can’t do something and he’s liable to prove the naysayers wrong.

Putting three guards on the floor simultaneously would give Boeheim a chance to get Thorpe and Battle on the floor together for greater scoring punch, while riding the hot hand at the point between Howard and Washington. It might also be an effective pressing or… (exhale)… man-to-man unit. I realize there are only so many minutes to go around but Battle playing some small forward would create plenty of opportunities for the other three to shine.

I don’t expect the exhibition game on Monday to tell us much on the guard rotation front, even if Thorpe plays. The same may hold true in the games against the cupcakes in the non-conference. Once SU plays tougher opponents and ACC play rolls around, we should have a clearer picture of the guards mix.

The goal of this year’s team should be to evolve into an NCAA Tournament-caliber squad by year’s end. It is an uphill climb, considering the dearth of known commodities on the roster. One thing Boeheim does know is he has four guards who are at least capable of making a positive impact. Will he break from his typical routine and use them all in a big way? I think he will, and If he does, that daunting ascent to an NCAA berth might not be insurmountable.

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