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Cooney - Mark KoneznyOn Thursday, USA Today blog The Big Lead released its list of the top 50 players in college basketball for the 2014-15 season. I’ll skip to the part you actually care about if you’re reading a Syracuse website – no, there was not a single SU player in the top 50. And you know what? For right now, that’s perfectly fair.

The Syracuse basketball team is heading into the new season looking like an almost complete unknown. Yes, people are familiar with guys like Rakeem Christmas and Tyler Cooney, but the casual hoops fan would probably be hard pressed to name anyone else on the roster. That’s what happens when you lose CJ Fair, Jerami Grant, Tyler Ennis, and Baye Keita, the four guys who became the faces of the program last season.

So really, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people outside of the Orange Nation don’t consider any of the guys on the SU roster to be among the top 50 players in America, and it’s a big part of why the Orange may struggle to crack the top 25 in the initial preseason polls. But at the end of the season, you can almost certainly expect the national perspective on the Orange to have changed. After all, who would have ever predicted that Tyler Ennis would become one of the top 25, let along top 50 players in the country last July?

There’s certainly no guarantee that any Syracuse players will crack the postseason top 50, but that’s not for a lack of strong candidates. And of course, as those relative unknown commodities go, so goes Jim Boeheim’s squad.

So who are the guys with a legitimate shot of becoming real impact players and finding a spot in the top 50? Well, I already mentioned two in Christmas and Cooney. Christmas has McDonald’s All-America pedigree but has always been an offensive afterthought, and prone to foul trouble. He’s also been splitting time with Keita, but as a senior this year with no other proven center on the roster (I’m not counting DaJuan Coleman, simply because we have no idea what his health level will be), the five spot is pretty much his, and his alone. Depending on how involved he gets in the offense, he could easily put up something along the lines of 12-13 points and 8-9 rebounds per game, similar to what Etan Thomas did as a senior.

As for Cooney, I’ve gone in depth on him before, and stand by everything I’ve already said. With a full year as a starter under his belt, he should be more prepared than ever to step up and lead the Orange in scoring and become a much more consistent shooter. He has probably the most realistic shot of becoming one of the top 50 players in America this year.

So who are some other guys who could step up and become top 50 players? Well for starters, there’s Chris McCullough. This is another guy I’ve covered before, and I still firmly believe that if he’s able to put everything together, he’s a lottery pick sooner rather than later. Kaleb Joseph is another potential top 50 player, as he seems to be somewhere on the spectrum between Jonny Flynn and Scoop Jardine. Let’s get one thing straight: he’s not Tyler Ennis, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

He’s a different player. Ennis was steady as a rock, while I expect Joseph to be a lot closer to a 6-3 version of Flynn – wildly athletic, vocal, exuberant, a solid scorer from the jump…and also prone to a lot more turnovers than Ennis. He’s got the talent and athleticism to become a really dynamic, explosive player, and while I’d be a little hesitant to anoint him this early, his work ethic is already pretty legendary and he’s got such a strong desire to win that I fully believe he’ll step on the court ready to go.

A couple of wild cards are Michael Gbinije and Tyler Roberson, two versatile guys with size, athleticism, and the kind of solid basketball IQ to make them formidable performers this season. For these guys to start sniffing the top 50, it boils down to what their respective roles become. One or the other is going to start at the small forward spot, in all likelihood, and the other will almost certainly be the sixth man. Gbinije has the more well rounded game, but Roberson is the kind of guy who could surprise everyone and throw up a few double-doubles here and there.

The biggest thing about this Syracuse team as we creep slowly but surely toward the new season is that, frankly, we don’t know a whole lot about this team. There haven’t been this many unknowns surrounding an Orange hoops team in quite awhile, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Jimmy B always seems to put together his best seasons when people are counting the Orange out in the preseason. The talent is there to be an exciting, explosive, athletic team. It remains to be seen whether any of that talent deserves to be mentioned in the top 50 nationally eventually, but for right now, having the individual Orangemen sitting outside looking in is reasonable.

Now they just need to go out there and prove everyone wrong.

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