At Big East media day two weeks ago, Syracuse was not surprisingly picked to finish near the top of the conference. What was surprising was when I noticed the poll at Madison Square Garden and saw the Orange picked lower than they should be. Despite losing three of their top four scorers; including reigning conference player of the year and Minnesota Timberwolves No. 1 pick Wes Johnson, Syracuse comes back bigger and maybe better than last year for the immortal legend that is Jim Boeheim.
Johnson, power forward Arinze Onuaku and sharpshooting guard Andy Rautins are gone, (Rautins was drafted by the Knicks and Onuaku was undrafted) but the Orange have reloaded with freshman sensation Fab Melo among others. The hype surrounding the Brazilian seven-footer was so immense that he was named the preseason rookie of the year, and Boeheim mentioned that he and the other freshmen on the roster will be able to contribute right away. Besides Melo, the rookie class also includes guard Dion Waiters, a 6-4 Philadelphia native who will see noticeable action as Boeheim's sixth man.
Waiters will sit behind junior Scoop Jardine and sophomore Brandon Triche on the depth chart in the backcourt, and Boeheim is high on his two other guards. In fact, Triche has "made a big jump" between his freshman and sophomore years according to Boeheim. If the flashes of brilliance and sweet shooting he displayed come back stronger this season, Syracuse fans may not clamor for Rautins (who attended the same high school as Triche) right away.
Up front, the Orange will play their trademark 2-3 zone, with Kris Joseph stepping into the small forward position as he looks to become the next great Syracuse wing, following a Who's Who of players the likes of Johnson, Lawrence Moten and some guy named Carmelo Anthony, who managed to bring Syracuse its only national championship in the one and only year he showcased his talent at the Carrier Dome. Joseph will be joined by power forward Rick Jackson, who returns to the starting five for his senior season; but this time without his longtime rebounding partner Onuaku. When Melo is not on the court, don't be surprised to see sophomore and fellow seven-footer DaShonte Riley in the middle.
The marquee game for Syracuse early in the year (and one I may attend as a fan) is their Jimmy V Classic matchup against Michigan State on December 7th at Madison Square Garden. Normally, one thinks de facto home game when Syracuse takes the court at "The World's Most Famous Arena," and when I asked Boeheim how playing to a sea of orange helps the team, he commented that it not only was "a good venue for us," but also that there "won't be so much orange" when Syracuse returns to the Garden on January 12th to play St. John's and new head coach Steve Lavin in a game sure to resurrect the once-dominant Johnnies-Orange rivalry.
Syracuse opens its Big East slate with a pair of games at the Carrier Dome, hosting Providence on December 28th and Notre Dame on New Year's Day before their first conference road game on January 8th against Seton Hall at the Prudential Center.