Over his more than 30 years at Syracuse, head coach Jim Boeheim has never been shy about predictions.
In the fall of 2002, Boeheim touted Gerry McNamara and Carmelo Anthony as two of college basketball’s top prospects. He had the same thing to say about Jonny Flynn and Donte Greene two years ago. As it turned out, Boeheim was spot on with all of these predictions.
This year, Boeheim hopes he can be accurate once again.
With the offseason departures of Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf – three of Syracuse’s top players from last year’s Sweet 16 team – Boeheim has wasted no time anointing Wesley Johnson as the heir apparent to carry the Orange back to the NCAA Tournament.
“He’ll go out and play and I’m confident that he’s a very good player,” Boeheim said.
While Boeheim is making another preseason prediction, Boeheim’s prophecy isn’t just based on purely on hype. The 6-foot-7 junior transferred from Iowa State following his sophomore season after averaging 12 points and being named honorable mention All Big 12. All of this, while playing on a bum ankle.
“Wesley Johnson has already proven that he can play in college,” Boeheim said. “He had big games at Iowa State. He’s already shown what he can do.”
Johnson has already drawn rave reviews from his teammates for his offensive versatility and defensive prowess. The one benefit of having transferred is that Johnson spent the past year working out with his current teammates.
“He is a highlight type of guy,” center Arinze Onuaku said.
Still, Johnson’s situation is different than Greene and Anthony’s time at Syracuse.
During Anthony and Greene’s lone years at Syracuse, the Orange had returned just one starter each from the previous year. While the Orange will be without Flynn, Harris and Devendorf, they still return a wealth of experience that will keep the pressure off Johnson from having to carry the workload.
“In college basketball you always have to be prepared to lose key guys,” Boeheim said. “The nice thing is that we have a lot of guys coming back that are experienced guys and we expect them to go forward.”
Among Boeheim’s experienced players include junior forward Rick Jackson and Onuaku. Both emerged as forces inside last season and the offensive philosophy figures to shift as a result.
“Jonny (Flynn) and Eric (Devendorf) were guards that dominated the ball and they needed the ball to be successful.” Boeheim said. “We’ll still be able to score on the perimeter but I think we’ll be more focused on getting the ball to the inside.”
The inside-out approach figures to aid Syracuse’s other veteran, senior guard Andy Rautins.
A Rautins’ 3-pointer was often the result of opposing teams doubling down on the low post last season. But Boeheim will be looking to Rautins for more than just his shot.
“We know he’s capable of making shots but I think he’s capable of making plays,” Boeheim said. “We’ll see more from Andy than we’ve seen.”
It’s really the long way of saying that while Johnson will be one of the focuses of Syracuse’s offense, it will be the pieces around Johnson that will determine how far Syracuse goes this season.
“This,” Johnson said, “will be a well-balanced team.”
One half of the backcourt equation will be easy to solve. Rautins will slide into the spot vacated by Devendorf, and in some ways be a significant improvement.
While Rautins lacks the ability to penetrate the lane in the same way that Devendorf did, Rautins is also more sound defensively and is less prone to silly turnovers. There’s also the intangible value of Rautins being less of an off the court problem than Devendorf was.
“Andy is better than he’s played yet,” Boeheim said. “He hasn’t really had the platform to give him the ball.”
With an inexperienced point guard, Rautins will also be looked upon to help run the offense, which is just fine by Rautins. The guard was second on the team in assists last year with 112, and while Devendorf averaged just as many assists per game as Rautins, Rautins also turned the ball over significantly less (107-73).
The real question surrounding the backcourt will be replacing Flynn. The guard was clearly Syracuse’s leader last season and the Orange went as far as Flynn was able to carry them. Flynn led the team with averages of points (17.4), assists (6.7), steals (54) and minutes (37.4).
Now that Flynn departed to the NBA, Syracuse is left with sophomore Scoop Jardine, who is coming off a redshirt year due to injury to his shin, and freshman guard Brandon Triche.
“They’re inexperienced players, but, we’ve had inexperienced point guards in the past that have adjusted and played well,” Boeheim said. “What they need to do is get the ball to people. We have guys that have proven they can score at this level and we don’t need our point guard to score as much as our point guards have scored in the past.”
The early report on Jardine is that he lost 15 pounds and worked the hideous kink out of his shooting motion. Jardine also started 10 games as a freshman, averaging 5.5 points and 2.4 assists.
Jardine will likely start the season as the team’s top point guard, but Triche also figures to play a prominent role as well.
Triche is the nephew of former Syracuse great Howard Triche, and was the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year in New York after graduating from Jamesville-DeWitt High School.
“One of the good things for a young point guard is to have a veteran with him in the backcourt like Andy (Rautins)” Boeheim said.
Syracuse has by far the most depth at this position.
Johnson will start at the wing for Harris and Jackson will keep his starting power forward spot. Jackson was the team’s most pleasant surprise last season, as he more than doubled his point production (3.7 to 8.3), and nearly did the same with his rebounding numbers (3.0 to 5.8).
Jackson spent the offseason working on his midrange shooting, as well as his foul shooting. Last year, Jackson shot just 48 percent from the charity stripe, and needs to be less of a liability late in games for those reasons.
“[It] can really improve my game, just getting that percentage up,” Jackson said.
What comes after Jackson and Johnson are a group of talented, but unproven, players.
Mookie Jones saw limited action last season, and ended up missing most of the season after needing hip surgery. The remainder of the playing time fell to Kris Joseph, who showed flashes of his talent, including making several spot starts for the Orange.
Joining the group is James Southerland, who was originally supposed to join the Orange last year before being declared ineligible due to academic issues.
“ When he shoots the ball,” Boeheim said, “he reminds me of Preston Shumpert, as far as shooting the basketball.”
The beginning of last season was an epiphany for Onuaku, who scored in double digits the first 16 out of 19 games. But Onuaku suffered through knee tendinitis midway through the season and his production tapered off significantly.
Onuaku never missed a game, but it was clear that he wasn’t healthy for most of last year. In the offseason, Onuaku had knee surgery and shed about 15 points off of his frame to take pressure off of his knees.
The Orange can only help that it will be enough to keep Onuaku productive in their inside-out offense.
“He hasn’t been pain-free for the last three years,” Boeheim said. “I think he’s still got some soreness but I think he’s better physically than he’s been in terms of pain.”
While Jackson will slide to the center role while Onuaku rests, 6-foot-11, 220 pound freshman DaShonte Riley may also see time.
“He’s an athletic big guy that can shoot it,” Boeheim said. “We have 10 guys that are capable of playing this year and I think all of the freshmen are capable of helping us.”
Even with the departure of Flynn, Devendorf and Harris, the Orange still have plenty of talent and scoring options to remain a threat in the Big East. If Johnson is as good as advertised and Rautins and Onuaku can stay healthy, Syracuse will return to the NCAA Tournament.
Said Boeheim: “When you look at overall experience, we have as much experience as most teams have and that’s very important ingredient with what we have this year.”
This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Juice.