Syracuse's depth spoke for itself this season, as Dion Waiters was Orange's best player despite not starting a single game. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)
The 2-3 zone defense. A home court that regularly attracts over 20,000 people every night. A Who's Who of talented players that have become even greater in the NBA. There is also the Hall of Fame coach closing in on 900 career wins after completing his record 34th season with at least twenty victories. This season may have ended with a loss in the East regional final, but you can add a ten-man rotation full of role players and future professionals to the long and storied list of trademarks for the program that has earned the right to be called New York State's college team, Syracuse University.
When I spoke to the legendary Jim Boeheim at Big East media day prior to the 2010-11 season that saw the Orange suffer an uncharacteristic early NCAA Tournament exit at the hands of Marquette, the first question I had for the coach was how he somehow always managed to recruit players who fit his system. Boeheim may have a reputation for not always being the most personable among the Big East coaches, but on this day; the iconic Syracuse head man was very accommodating and forthcoming with me, as he clarified the fact that a coach never truly gets what he needs when recruiting; and explained how he has been able to coach someone who comes into Syracuse underdeveloped only to turn him into a player who has a long professional future, something Boeheim has carved a personal legacy out of in central New York as the sun sets on his 36th season at his alma mater.
Kris Joseph, the latest in a long line of productive Syracuse wings who was also the leading scorer for the 34-3 Orange this past season, is a prime example of that. The Montreal native may have averaged just over thirteen points per game, but his leadership and tendency to do all the little things that do not show up in box scores outweighed his lack of productivity compared to other scorers in the conference, something that was proven when Joseph was named a first team all-Big East selection. The senior is one of four players to leave the Orange, but graduates next month having done more than merely make an impact on an already rich tradition.
Senior point guard Antonio "Scoop" Jardine also graduates after completing his fifth year with averages of nearly nine points and five assists to go with a lethal 38 percent accuracy from long range. Jardine came back stronger than ever from a torn ACL two years ago that kept him around for an extra season, and leaves the controls of Boeheim's offense in the hands of freshman Michael Carter-Williams. At 6-5, Carter-Williams may be taller than most point men in the nation, but he averaged nearly two assists per contest while only playing an average of ten minutes a night. Once he sees significant minutes, Carter-Williams will almost certainly join the likes of Providence's Vincent Council, Notre Dame's Eric Atkins, Marquette's Junior Cadougan and USF's Anthony Collins among the Big East's elite at his position.
Syracuse was dealt a minor blow when sophomore center and reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo decided to declare for the NBA draft, but the Orange have two replacements for the seven-foot Brazilian who are more than capable despite their offensive struggles this past season. Freshman Rakeem Christmas and sophomore Baye Keita proved how indispensable they were to Boeheim's rotation when they had the unenviable task of filling in for Melo during the NCAA Tournament, but like Carter-Williams in the backcourt, the duo were victims of the Orange's massive depth, as they too were limited to a combined average of twelve minutes per game. Sophomore C.J. Fair will join Christmas and Keita inside for the Orange as Syracuse once again has a decided size advantage when compared to their Big East rivals. The Orange also welcome two more forwards to their rotation in DaJuan Coleman and Jerami Grant. Coleman, who is no relation to; but draws comparisons to former Syracuse star Derrick Coleman, is a product of the Jamesville-DeWitt High School program that Boeheim has signed guards Brandon Triche and Andy Rautins from, and Grant comes to Syracuse from DeMatha Catholic in Maryland. Grant will most likely be the long-term replacement for Kris Joseph, and if his name sounds familiar; it's due to his NBA lineage, as he is the son of former Washington Bullets forward Harvey Grant and nephew of Chicago Bulls power forward Horace, Harvey's twin brother. Grant also has Big East bloodlines in the form of his older brother Jerian, the starting shooting guard at Notre Dame.
The aforementioned Brandon Triche returns to anchor the Syracuse backcourt for what will be his senior season, and should have an increased role in the offense after Dion Waiters declared for the NBA draft following a stellar sophomore year in which he averaged over twelve points per game despite never being part of Jim Boeheim's starting lineup. Waiters was limited to 24 minutes per contest due to the wealth of talent on the roster, but was still compared to NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade by college basketball insider Jon Rothstein on several occasions. Had Waiters remained in school, the Philadelphian would almost certainly have been voted the preseason choice for Big East Player of the Year. Last but not least, swingman James Southerland will most likely open next season as a starter after a campaign that saw the Queens product average seven points in just sixteen minutes per game off the bench, a stat line which included several clutch shots and a 34 percent rate from beyond the arc.
Looking at the Big East, there are some contenders that stand out, such as Louisville, Cincinnati and Notre Dame; but if the status quo holds to form for one of the schools who will eventually be leaving for the ACC, the road to a double bye at Madison Square Garden will almost certainly be going through the Carrier Dome on more than one occasion.