The 2009-10 season was one of the best in Syracuse history. The team received its first No. 1 AP ranking since the Derrick Coleman era and landed in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
But as Syracuse loses three of its cornerstones from last year and imports a new class of talented freshmen, who will fit in where? Here’s how it breaks down:
WESLEY JOHNSON: The red-shirt junior had the biggest impact of any one-year player since Carmelo Anthony. His 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds earned him a stockpile of awards, including Big East Player of the Year and First Team AP All American.
“We had a wonderful season and I had a great season,” Johnson said. “But it has always been my dream to go to the NBA.”
Certainly, the statistics were there to put Johnson among the elite players in the NCAA, but what really made Johnson a standout was his mentality. His unselfishness set the tone for a balanced Syracuse attack that allowed them to rise from unranked to No. 1 in the country.
“I think a lot of guys on the team are looking for each other to pass and really trust each other,” Johnson said. “I think that plays into that.”
ANDY RAUTINS: There was no one who improved throughout the course of his college career than Rautins. Initially regarded as a fringe Division I recruit, Rautins expanded his abilities beyond his dead-eye shot to include being a hawk on defense and an excellent passer on offense.
Besides, as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim aptly put it, it’s not how highly touted you are coming in.
“We do not have a McDonald’s All-American on this team. We have beaten the teams that have five or six McDonald’s All-Americans on their team. It doesn’t matter. You have to be good players and you have to develop into good players and these guys have.”
ARINZE ONUAKU: When you look at the centers that Syracuse has had in the past decade, Onuaku stands out among them. To be sure, Onuaku was a solid anchor to the 2-3 zone in the same way that Darryl Watkins and Craig Forth were.
What separated Onuaku from the group was his offensive ability. Working tirelessly on his interior game, Onuaku became a steady scorer with his baby hooks and drop steps. Much like his fellow senior Rautins, the two went out on top.
“It’s funny, Andy [Rautins] and I were just talking about it,” Onuaku said. “We both came in underrated. I came in as an underrated guy and Andy came in as an underrated guy. From day one we’ve been working hard. One thing is we have always believed in ourselves. We’ve been working hard and it shows; it’s paid off.”
With all due respect to Johnson, Rautins and Onuaku, who will have long careers in the professional ranks, it’s out with the old, and in with the new. Syracuse will bring in four recruits with impressive high school resumes that has them ranked as the No. 7 recruiting class according to Scout.com. So, who are these new players?
DION WAITERS: The Philadelphia native committed to Syracuse after seeing fellow natives Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson thrive at Syracuse. The combo guard will keep Syracuse fans on the edge of their seats with his ability to drive to the hoop and finish in traffic.
Waiters doesn’t lack for confidence. When speaking with Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Armstrong, he had this to say about the best player he’s ever gone up against: “This year’s No. 1 draft pick, John Wall. It was at Peach Jam and they said he got a triple double, but I didn’t see all that. I got 22 points and the win.”
FAB MELO: Just one look at Syracuse’s prized center recruit and it’s plain to see why he was a McDonald’s All American. With a legitimate 7-foot wingspan and his agility in the low post, Melo (you can already sense the hype just by the moniker) has the makings of a star.
Still, it’s never been about the talent that Melo oozes when it has come to his critics. It’s been about his work ethic and conditioning. On NBADraft.net, one analyst’s critique accurately sums up the criticism: “Questionable conditioning and motor.”
But Melo quieted some of his doubters in the McDonald’s All American game. While Melo finished with only two points, he also contributed seven rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in 19 minutes while displaying a newfound determination for the game.
CJ FAIR: Long. Athletic. Finisher. Can any three other words in the English language get a Syracuse fan excited about an incoming small forward for Syracuse? Those are the adjectives consistently used to describe Fair, but here’s another reason to get excited about the 6-foot-7 swingman. His motto and approach to life: “No days off.”
BAYE MOUSSA KEITA: Keita joins the long tradition of Oak Hill Academy players to play at Syracuse (Billy Edelin, Carmelo Anthony and Eric Devendorf to name a few). Keita has great length (6-foot-11) but must bulk up (he only weighs 220 pounds) if he’s going to compete at the next level. Still, Keita has the length inside to become an excellent shot blocker.
Syracuse mostly used a seven-man rotation throughout the course of last season, and will be returning four of those players – Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche, Rick Jackson and Scoop Jardine. In addition, the Orange return center DeShonte Riley and swingmen Mookie Jones and James Southerland.
Jackson and Triche will keep their starting spots while Joseph figures to fill in the void left by Johnson. The Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year showed a vast improvement in his game last season, finishing in traffic and showing signs of an outside jumper.
Jardine was such a spark plug off the bench that Boeheim may choose to keep him there this year. That would open the door for Waiters, Jones or Southerland to slide into the starting shooting guard slot.
As for the spot left by Onuaku, Melo figures to be the front runner given his pedigree. But Riley may challenge for a spot with his solid performance in the NCAA Tournament. He filled in admirably for Onuaku, but still looked lost on offense at times.
Regardless of who steps into what role, Boeheim will have plenty of options for the upcoming season.
“I’ve been doing the same thing for 34 years,” Boeheim said. “Syracuse basketball is about being ready to play and being consistent.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
* G: Brandon Triche
* G: Dion Waiters
* F: Kris Joseph
* F: Rick Jackson
* C: Fab Melo
This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Juice.