The Syracuse University basketball program will open up its 2011-12 campaign Saturday afternoon when Fordham University visits the Carrier Dome in a non-conference game. The Orange, ranked No. 5 in the country in both the AP and USA Today/ESPN Coaches polls, will begin their 36th season under head coach Jim Boeheim with -- whether their coach likes it or not -- national championship expectations.
Syracuse returns eight players who played meaningful minutes from last season's squad that finished 27-8 overall and suffered a second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament to Big East Conference foe Marquette University, 66-62. The only key player Syracuse lost is forward/center Rick Jackson, who averaged 13.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game to earn All-Big East Second Team honors.
"Ricky meant a lot to us last year, no question," Boeheim told Athlon sports." We don't have anyone on this team that's exactly like him, but we do have options."
Those options including sophomores center Fab Melo and center Baye Moussa Keita. Last season, Melo (7-foot, 244-pounds) entered Syracuse as one of the most highly-touted freshman in the land. However, with hype comes high expectations and the Brazilian native didn't live up to them (9.9 minutes per game, 2.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg). But, during this off-season, Melo worked on his conditioning and it seems after two exhibition games that this could be a rebound year. Keita, on the other hand, may not be a dominating force inside, but is a nice role player who plays hard.
Arguably, the Orange's best player, senior forward Kris Joseph, will be the key to their NCAA Tournament run. Joseph (6-7, 210) averaged the most points (14.3), and the second-most minutes (32.4) and rebounds (5.2) per game for last year's squad. Despite the solid numbers, many were disappointed by Joseph's junior season, which began with him being named to the Preseason All-Conference team -- At the end of the year, Joseph made third-team honors. This season, the SU fans are hoping that, maybe, experts jumped the gun on Joseph's potential and that this will be the senior's big year.
"I watched him last year and it wasn’t the same Kris that I was used to seeing," said former Syracuse star forward Wesley Johnson in the Syracuse Post-Standard Friday. "I could tell he was developing his game and he was trying to find his own identity as a player."
"When I came in, Coach Boeheim told me I didn’t need to be Superman. I didn’t need to be the hero. I just had to go out there and play my game. If Kris takes that mindset, with his abilities, he’ll be fine."
The guard position is the Orange's deepest spot as senior point guard Scoop Jardine (6-2, 190) and junior Brandon Triche (6-4, 205) are SU's floor generals. Jardine, who spent the summer playing for Team USA during the World University Games in Bejing, China, is the heartbeat of the Orange. As Jardine goes, so does the SU offense. Last season, Jardine led the team with 5.9 assists per game, while netting 12.5 ppg -- third best average on the team. Triche (11.1 ppg, 2.9 apg) is ready to make a name for himself after a solid sophomore campaign. If there's one thing that Triche needs to do, it's be more aggressive.
Coming off the bench will be guard sophomores, guard Dion Waiters (6.6 ppg), forward C.J. Fair (6.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg), and junior forward James Southerland. Fair (6-8, 203) was easily SU's biggest surprise last season as he seemed to be the spark to every Orange come-from-behind run. Fair has a great ability to score inside -- much like former SU forward Josh Pace did for multiple seasons -- and rumors have it that during the off-season the sophomore worked on improving his outside jumper. If that's true, look out.
Meanwhile, Waiters (6-4, 215) has star power written all over him. The sophomore, who is probably the most explosive guard on the team, can score in bunches, however, he decision making, at times, is mediocre. If Waiters can stay within himself, he could be an excellent weapon for Boeheim.
To begin the season, Southerland (6-8, 210) will be Boeheim's eighth man in the SU's playing rotation. Southerlnad is a tall and lanky small forward who's a 3-point shooting threat (36.8 percent -- last season). However, like Melo, Southerland seemed to get lost a lot last season. To stay in the rotation, Southerland will need to be consistent at knocking down 3s.
Pushing Southerland, and possibly Waiters, for playing time will be incoming freshmen, forward/center Rakeem Christmas and guard Michael Carter-Williams. Both Christmas (6-9, 222) and Carter-Williams (6-6, 176) earned McDonald's All-American honors and, like Melo, enters this season with a lot of hype. Yes, Christmas will start most games at power forward, but SU fans might be disappointed in his overall playing time as it looks as if Boeheim is going to ease both freshmen into the rotation.
Overall, SU enters the season with by far its highest expectations in years. That is no surprise as Boeheim hinted that this could be his deepest team ever. Currently, three of CBSSports.com's college basketball experts -- Jerry Palm, Jeff Goodman and Gary Parrish -- all have the Orange earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (Parrish was the only one picking SU to make the Final Four). SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean thinks, so far, that SU will be seeded No. 2. Meanwhile, Bodog.eu has SU at 12-1 favorites to win the National Title.
Needless to say, its Final Four or bust for the 2011-12 Syracuse Orange.
Orange Basketball Schedule
For a scouting report on the Fordham Rams, click here.
SB Nation New York will be blogging live Saturday afternoon from press row at the Carrier Dome for the Syracuse vs. Fordham contest. Be sure to check back for more pre-game news, in-game updates and post-game reactions. Make sure to follow along on Twitter at SBNationNY and JaredSmithCNY.