Syracuse ready to shed its underachiever reputation

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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Syracuse will need Scoop Jardine to take on more of a leadership role this season. (Getty Images)  
Syracuse will need Scoop Jardine to take on more of a leadership role this season. (Getty Images)  

Syracuse and expectations don't seem to get along.

In the last nine seasons, Syracuse was ranked in the preseason top 20 five times. In those five years, the Orange reached the Sweet 16 only once. On the other hand, in the four seasons they were outside the preseason top 25, the Orange won a national championship and made three Sweet 16 appearances.

Of course, Jim Boeheim's troops are ranked No. 4 in CBSSports.com's Top 25 (and one) to start the season. Will the trend continue?

"It shouldn't be a problem," junior guard Brandon Triche said. "We have a lot of guys who are very experienced."

"The expectations that people have of us are not greater than the expectations we have for ourselves," senior forward Kris Joseph added.

The No. 4 ranking is the highest Syracuse has been picked in the preseason since it was ranked No. 6 in 2004. That season, the Orange were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament. When Syracuse was ranked No. 7 in the year following the national title season, the Orange didn't make it past the Sweet 16.

Triche said the players aren't even paying attention to their preseason rankings -- they care more about what a certain Jim Boeheim thinks of them.

"Our coach will be the real judge on how good we are," Triche said. "If we're not competing at a high level or meeting his expectations, the ranking won't matter."

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Last season, Syracuse was ranked No. 10 at the outset before running off 18 consecutive wins to start the campaign. After moving up to as high as No. 3 in the polls, the Orange lost four in a row before an up-and-down ending to the season. They were knocked out in the second round of the Big Dance by Marquette.

The Big East might not get 11 bids to the NCAA tournament again this season, but CBSSports.com has three other teams in the top 10 and six overall in the top 25. As a result, don't be surprised if Syracuse has some blemishes on its profile again.

"I think the league is just hard," Boeheim said. "It's just a difficult league, and I think you're going to suffer at times in the league, no matter who you are."

Heading into the year, it seems like Syracuse has all the pieces to live up to the lofty preseason expectations this time around. There are three veteran returning starters in Joseph, Triche and senior guard Scoop Jardine. The sophomore quartet of C.J. Fair, Dion Waiters, Baye Moussa Keita and Fab Melo will have a year under their collective belts. Shooting forwards James Southerland and Mookie Jones are also back, and the Orange welcome a very good recruiting class that includes two McDonald's All-Americans in Rakeem Christmas and Mike Carter-Williams, and a U18 national team player in Trevor Cooney.

Syracuse has everything: experience, depth, shooters, talent, guards, bigs, hungry young players.

"Whenever you have that many guys back -- and we won 27 games last year -- it's a good indication that you can be good," Boeheim said. "And we have three really good freshmen to add to those guys. On paper, we're deserving."

The only loss from last season is post player Rick Jackson -- but it's a big loss. The 6-foot-9 Philadelphia native led the Big East in rebounds and blocks, and also averaged 13.1 points. He registered 17 double-doubles and carried the load inside for the Orange.

Moreover, he was the senior leader for a young Syracuse team; it's not just his production that needs to be replaced.

"I don't think it will be that hard to get a collective group to make up the loss," Joseph said. "Myself, C.J. Fair, Baye, Fab, Rakeem -- we can make up for it."

As far as leadership, Jardine, Triche and Joseph will have to take the take the reins. Jardine is the loudest voice on the court and in the locker room, but Joseph and Triche are ready to pick up the pieces.

The other knocks on this year's Syracuse team seem hollow. Some say the Orange lack a consistent go-to guy, but Jardine and Joseph showed the ability to make big shots last season and players like Fair and Waiters are ready to have breakout seasons on the offensive end.

Others claim a dearth of knockdown outside shooters as a major weakness. Jones and Southerland can stretch a defense off the bench, while Carter-Williams and Cooney were two of the best shooters in the high school ranks last season. The key will be Triche and Jardine limiting their ill-advised outside shots; both are more effective making plays off the bounce.

As always, the not-so-secret weapon for Boeheim will be the patented 2-3 zone defense.

Last year, Syracuse had its most efficient defense in the past decade, ranking No. 16 in the country according to Kenpom.com. With the additions of Christmas on the interior and Carter-Williams on the perimeter, the Orange could be improved at that end of the floor.

"We have more high-flyers, we have more length," Triche said. "With Rak, Baye, Mike Carter-Williams, it makes our defense that much tougher."

If everything comes together for Syracuse this season, it has a chance to be one of the last teams standing come early April. Of course, one could have said that about any of the previous Orange teams that were praised so highly in the preseason.

However, this season's version doesn't seem concerned with the omnipresent legacy of underachieving when given high expectations.

"People think if you lose a game, it's the end of the world," Joseph said. "We don't see it that way. We have a great team and a great coach. All our guys are confident.

"This year, we have the team to just win it all."

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