We’re smack in the middle of college football season, but just a matter of days ago, college basketball season kicked off while everyone was getting excited about a potential return to a bowl game for Syracuse University. The Orange hoops team has been working out for the past week, and as we head toward the official start of the 2015-2016 season, there are a lot of uncertainties surrounding this year’s team.
Like nearly all of Jim Boeheim’s squads over the years, there’s plenty of talent on this Syracuse roster, even if the bench is truncated for reasons not named “Jim Boeheim.” With the NCAA’s penalties beginning this season, and transfer Paschal Chukwu sitting out this year, the Orange are left with nine scholarship players for the upcoming year: Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Tyler Roberson, Chino Obokoh, DaJuan Coleman, Kaleb Joseph, Malachi Richardson, Tyler Lydon, and Frank Howard.
Obviously, the biggest question marks have to deal with replacing Rakeem Christmas, and depth in the post in general. Coleman’s health has obviously been a storyline for a number of years at this point, and Obokoh remains a raw body in the post. And with Moustapha Diagne failing to get admitted due to some NCAA clearinghouse issues, it leaves Boeheim’s squad so thin that the Orange are actually preparing Lydon to play in the middle in case of emergency.
There are some certainties with this year’s team, of course, mainly centering around the team’s elder statesmen, and most experienced players: Gbinije, Cooney, and Roberson. You can bet the mortgage on each of them getting more than 30 minutes per game. What happens after those top three, however, remains to be seen. I remain hopeful that Kaleb Joseph can come into his own in his second season on the hill, but there’s speculation that Gbinije may wind up taking some of his minutes at the point guard position.
Personally, I’m hoping Gbinije can spend more time at small forward, the position he’s best suited for on this team (well, shooting guard is probably his most natural position, but with Cooney firmly entrenched there, Gbinije won’t see much, if any, time at the off guard spot). Still, it’s easy to see why Boeheim might be inclined to slide Silent G over to the point, as it opens the door for early playing time for both Richardson and Lydon, two talented freshmen who each possess the ability to stretch the floor (a trait sorely lacking from the team last year).
One of the things the Orange will need to find early is this year’s alpha dog. When the going gets rough, who’s going to be the guy who steps up and makes a big play? I’m not just talking about getting a bucket, though that’s obviously part of the equation. Who’s going to make a smart pass, come up with a big defensive play, or snag a key rebound? Last year, it was Rakeem Christmas. Two years ago, it was either Tyler Ennis or CJ Fair.
Who’s this year’s lead dog? At first, you’d assume it might be Cooney, as a fifth year senior who’s spent his entire career in Boeheim’s system. But Cooney’s inconsistency and tendency to force some shots, even when on a cold streak, don’t really lend themselves to the same kind of big play tendencies of the guy Cooney’s drawn the most comparisons to, Gerry McNamara.
The answer, of course, should wind up being Michael Gbinije. The 6-foot-7, versatile wing player can stick jumpers and, when he remembers he’s a good athlete, attack the rim and finish with authority. He still needs to rebound better, and if he’s going to be running the point has to become a more natural floor leader (like I said, I’m hoping he plays more at SF, since point most definitely didn’t look like a very natural fit last season, most of the time – in large part because you don’t necessarily want your best all-around scorer as the guy trying to facilitate for others).
The two biggest keys to the season, other than establishing a true on court lead dog, come in the forms of Kaleb Joseph and DaJuan Coleman. If Syracuse can get consistent play from Joseph, and if he can earn Boeheim’s full trust, it allows Gbinije to stick with a more natural scoring role. Coleman, of course, could wind up being the single biggest key to the entire season. The 6-foot-9, big bodied, hometown boy is reportedly in great shape (and certainly looks it, from photos taken at early practices) but his knees will always be a big worry. And even if his body holds up, foul trouble will become the next biggest scare he can give the Orange.
If Coleman can’t stay on the court, it could be a very long season for Syracuse. Obokoh, as I said, is still a raw prospect and while a tremendously hard worker, continues to look a bit lost out there on the floor. Physically he should be able to compete, but until he starts figuring out how to play the game, he remains a liability, particularly on offense. After Chino? Well, then you’re turning to either Roberson – who needs to stick at power forward as much as possible – or Lydon, who has done a nice job of putting on some weight but still clocks in at just 205 pounds. Not exactly idea for the center spot in major college basketball.
The Orange well knock out a couple of exhibition games in early November, and then tip off the regular season on November 13 against Lehigh. Coincidentally, that’s my birthday, so Orange: do me a favor and give me a great performance to help me celebrate turning the big 3-5?
If everything goes well this year, this is still a team with enough talent to win 20 or more games. But everything hangs on the edge of a knife. One or two small problems crop up and the season could take a disastrous turn, and it all comes back to the lack of depth. No, Jim Boeheim never plays more than seven or eight players, particularly when it comes to conference play, but it’s a heck of a lot better to have options should the team get into a bind…right?
I’m cautiously hopeful for the upcoming season, myself. I expect this team to potentially crack the top 25, though I have no illusions about it becoming a real contender for the ACC crown. Not yet, anyway.