2013-14 RTC Class Schedule: Syracuse OrangePosted by BHayes on August 28th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @HoopsTraveler. Periodically throughout the preseason, RTC will take an in-depth look at the schedules of some of the more prominent teams in college basketball.
In many ways, the 2013-14 season looks to be business as usual at Syracuse. The roster is deep and talented, expectations are sky-high, and Jim Boeheim is manning the sidelines for the Orange. But you can rest assured that there will have never been a Syracuse basketball season like this one. The day is finally here – the Orange, charter members of the Big East conference, are now officially ACC constituents. Heading south with them are former Big East brethren Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. The addition of these three formidable basketball programs makes the ACC, at least on paper, the toughest hoops conference in the land.
- Team Outlook: Duke will undoubtedly be eager to remind the newbies that the ACC is its conference to rule, but Syracuse should be as poised as any foe to upend the Blue Devils. The Orange frontcourt is loaded, with junior and all-Big East second teamer C.J. Fair (14.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG) leading the charge. Surrounding Fair up front is a trio of high-upside sophomores. Rakeem Christmas (5.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.8 BPG), DaJuan Coleman (4.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG), and Jerami Grant (3.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG) are all expected to see an uptick in production in year two, but of the three, it is Grant who has the best chance to quickly transform himself from role player into star. Junior Baye Keita (8.6 block percentage) will also see minutes up front, while Duke transfer Michael Gbinije and freshman B.J. Johnson will battle to find time in this crowded frontcourt. Not surprisingly, given the remarkable depth up front, the question marks for Jim Boeheim and the Orange all appear in the backcourt. Gone are Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, leaving Trevor Cooney as the sole backcourt returnee who saw any time a year ago. The sophomore is an engaged and capable defender, but will be expected to shoot the ball better from the outside this time around (he was just 27% from three as a freshman). He may also be tasked with handling some backup point guard duties, as there is no obvious reserve for presumptive starter Tyler Ennis. Ennis, a freshman from Ontario, California, may be the most important player on the Orange roster. With said deficit of ball-handlers, the consensus top-25 recruit will have the rock in his hands a whole lot, and what he does with it will go a long ways towards determining the fate of this Syracuse season. With all the talent around him he does not need to be nearly as dynamic as MCW was a year ago, but with few other options around, he most certainly has to play a solid floor game for the Orange to begin to tap their full potential.
- Non-Conference Schedule Rank (out of 10): 6.5. Jim Boeheim has long held a reputation as a soft scheduler – his teams rarely leave the state of New York before the New Year – but this non-conference slate actually has some bite to it. A trip to Maui right before Thanksgiving will be the first big test for the Orange. A solid Minnesota team starts off the tournament in Hawaii, but it’s a potential championship game match-up with either Gonzaga or Baylor that possesses the glimmer of a marquee non-conference tilt. A visit from Indiana, a likely Top 25 team in its own right, will greet the Orange upon their return to the mainland, and despite losing four starters from a year ago, Yogi Ferrell and the Hoosiers won’t be intimidated by a national TV appearance at the Carrier Dome. Rounding out the meaty portion of the December schedule are former Big East rivals St. John’s and Villanova, two teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations who should be looking to stick it to the Big East defectors. If you are bullish on either Cal or Arkansas (one or the other will be the Cuse’s second round opponent in Maui), Syracuse should face six teams with realistic NCAA hopes before January – a very respectable number indeed. What pulls the overall grade down a little here is a lack of both truly elite competition and pesky mid/small majors – see: “Cupcake City.”
- Cupcake City: While the overall non-conference schedule packs a punch, the Orange will still be treated to a nice sampling of the finest cupcakes New York state has to offer. Empire State schools Cornell, Colgate, St. Francis, Fordham, and Binghamton all visit the Carrier Dome before the New Year, and no member of that quintet was able to crack KenPom’s top 200 a season ago. That ignominious distinction is shared by fellow December dome visitors High Point and Eastern Michigan, which should mean Syracuse is highly unlikely to trip up against any of the smaller schools on their schedule.
- Toughest Early Season Test: While both Big East schools could offer a stiff test (especially St. John’s at the Garden), the toughest pre-ACC games for Syracuse will come in Maui. Playing three games in three days at the balmy Lahaina Civic Center is no joke regardless of the opponent, but neither Minnesota nor Arkansas/Cal will be pushovers as the Orange battle for the Maui crown. If they can get through those two games, the finals tilt will likely feature either Gonzaga or Baylor – two teams on the cusp of the nation’s elite, and both with frontcourts talented enough to make life difficult for Fair, Grant and company.
- Hardest ACC Stretch: In this rough and tumble ACC, you can pick out almost any stretch and find a challenge, but the toughest portion of the Orange’s ACC slate should be a three-game road trip that kicks off in Durham on February 22. No explanation needed for the trial that Duke and Cameron Indoor poses, but the two road dates that follow – at Maryland and Virginia – could prove to be only marginally more manageable for Boeheim’s bunch. If Duke, Syracuse and UNC enter the season as ACC favorites, the Terps and Cavaliers have to be the two teams in that next tier most capable of making an ACC title push. Snagging one of those three games should be considered holding serve; somehow winning two would have to constitute a major victory.
- Easiest ACC Stretch: The ACC schedule-makers have set the Orange up for a smooth transition into the league, as the January schedule really lacks any kind of teeth. Included in their seven January ACC games are match-ups with presumptive basement inhabitants Miami (twice), Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Neither a visit from depleted Pittsburgh, nor a trip to Boston College will really scare the Cuse, leaving a Carrier Dome game with UNC as the one ACC game to highlight before February. A seven-game winning streak to begin life in the ACC is far from impossible here.
- Best Individual Match-up: Both Duke games will be must-watches, but I’m curious to see what happens on February 3, when Notre Dame visits the Carrier Dome. The Fighting Irish have one of the best backcourts in the country in juniors Eric Atkins (11.2 PPG, 5.5 APG) and Jerian Grant (13.3 PPG, 5.5 APG), and Mike Brey’s team is certainly familiar with the challenges that both the Carrier Dome and the Syracuse 2-3 zone present. Pundits often say that come February and March, freshmen are no longer freshmen – this will be a fantastic opportunity to evaluate just how true that saying rings for Ennis, and to a certain extent, the sophomore Cooney. Their continued growth will be ever important as the Cuse’s schedule toughens down the stretch and into March.
- Most Challenging Road Test: Let’s keep this simple. Syracuse will be playing the Duke Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 22. I’ll go with that. The Cuse has never made the trip to Cameron Indoor before, so the journey will be an entirely new experience for everyone involved. The match-up itself is an intriguing one; can Syracuse’s long front line overwhelm their relatively inexperienced Duke counterparts, or will the Duke spacing and three-point shooting be too much for the Syracuse zone to handle? Winning in Cameron Indoor is always a monumental task, and it shouldn’t take too long for the ACC’s new kids on the block to figure that out.
- Upset City: On the front half of the schedule, that trip to the Garden to take on the Johnnies should be handled with care. The Red Storm underachieved a bit a season ago, and despite what should be a large contingent of Syracuse fans on hand, Lavin’s bunch has the capability to nip the Orange at home. Looking to ACC play, Syracuse would be wise not to sleepwalk into Chestnut Hill for its January game against Boston College. BC’s young nucleus played well at home a season ago – even pushing Duke to the wire in a one-point loss, and could prove dangerous with another year of seasoning under their belt. Add in the background noise of a former Big East and regional rivalry, and the Orange may also have to contend with a rather electric Conte Forum for once.