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Top 25 Countdown: No. 4 Syracuse Orange

Oct 30, 2012, 9:00 AM EDT

spt-111017-cjfair

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 34-3, 17-1 Big East (1st); Lost in the Elite 8 to Ohio State

Head Coach: Jim Boeheim

Key Losses: Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, Fab Melo

Newcomers: Jerami Grant, DaJuan Coleman

Projected Lineup:

G: Brandon Triche, Sr.
G: Michael Carter-Williams, So.
F: James Southerland, Sr.
F: CJ Fair, Jr.
C: Rakeem Christmas, So.
Bench: Jerami Grant, Fr.; DaJuan Coleman, Fr.; Baye Keita, So.; Trevor Cooney, Fr.

Outlook: Jim Boeheim has done a lot of impressive things during his long and illustrious coaching career, but there may be no achievement greater than what he was able to accomplish last season. In a year plagued by scandal — The Dion Waiter transfer saga; the Bernie Fine scandal; Fab Melo’s eligibility, and legal, issues; a report of failed drug tests that were covered up. — the Orange were still able to finish the regulars season at 30-1 and make the Elite 8. And if Melo, the anchor of their 2-3 zone last season, had done his homework, who knows what could have ended up happening. The Orange lost just one game when he was in the lineup.

Melo is gone this season, as are three of Syracuse’s top four scorers from last season. But the Orange return quite a bit of a talent and a team that should be perfectly suited to playing Boeheim’s 2-3 zone.

The key to this season is going to be the development of Michael Carter-Williams. A top 25 recruit coming out of high school, MCW was buried on the bench for much of last season as Scoop Jardine, Waiters and Triche made up the perimeter rotation. As a sophomore, MCW will be asked to slide into the starting role, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be able to thrive. From his size, to his handle, to his passing ability, MCW has been compared to Jason Kidd, and while that’s a tough comparison to live up to, it’s not that far off. He’ll make everyone on the team better because they’ll get open shots. With the combination of shooters on the perimeter and athletes around the rim that Syracuse has on the roster this season, it’s not crazy to think MCW could averaged 15 points and five assists this year.

While his back court mate is quite inexperienced, even for a sophomore, Brandon Triche is arguably as experienced as any player in the country, having started every game for the Orange for the past three years. He’s also the epitome of a team-player, sacrificing his minutes last season to allow Waiters more playing time without making a peep. He’s a combo-guard that defends, rebounds and (usually) is a knockdown three point shooter.

But most importantly, like MCW (who’s 6-foot-6), Triche is a bigger guard. He stands 6-foot-4, which means that, when teaming with MCW at the top of the Syracuse 2-3 zone, he’ll help create all kinds of problems for Syracuse opponents.

Expect redshirt freshman sharpshooter Trevor Cooney to be the third guard in this equation.

In the front court, Syracuse has a multitude of weapons and different looks that can be used. The most familiar roster for Big East fans should be CJ Fair, an uber-athletic, 6-foot-8 combo-forward who has had his fair share of poster-worthy dunks during his college career. Fair has also had some impressive performances in his two seasons with the Orange, but he’s struggled to find consistent minutes on the floor. He’ll get them this season, and should thrive.

James Southerland is the guy I expect to eventually start at the four. Like Fair, he’s athletic and, at 6-foot-8, lanky enough to cause serious problems in the 2-3 zone. Southerland is also a very good three-point shooter, meaning he’ll be able to help create space in the paint. Freshman Jerami Grant, another athletic, 6-foot-8 forward, should see minutes as well.

The biggest question mark for the Orange will be at the center spot, where Rakeem Christmas, a sophomore, and DaJuan Coleman, a freshman, will likely split minutes. Christmas and Coleman are both 6-foot-9, but where Christmas is long and a shotblocker, Coleman is much bigger, checking in around 280 pounds.What Boeheim has done the past two seasons with elite center recruits — Melo and Christmas — is to put them in the starting lineup but yank them just a few minutes into the game, going with a smaller lineup. It will be interesting to see if he does that with Coleman this season.

Whatever the case, if he decides to use them on the floor together, it may end up hurting the Orange defensively; neither is ideal to play the wing in the 2-3 zone. Individually, Christmas is the better defender while Coleman is better offensively and on the glass. Another lanky center, sophomore Baye Keita, will also see minutes up front.

Predictions?: I still think Louisville is the best team in the Big East, but Syracuse isn’t really all that far behind. Like the Cardinals, I think the Orange are going to be much better on the defensive end of the floor than on the offensive end. But the bottom line is this: all the players taking over bigger roles for this Syracuse team were highly-touted recruits, and a few of them — MCW, Christmas, even throwing Coleman in there — were ranked in the top 25 nationally. Boeheim has done a great job recruiting in recent years, and this is the season it will pay off for him.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

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