Syracuse was given a vote of confidence coming into the 2013-14 season, when the Orange were ranked No. 8 in the AP preseason poll and picked to finish second to Duke in the ACC. And, to be honest, you have to give those prognosticators credit. Based on what we saw from this program in 2012-13, there would seem to be good reason to expect a top-10 performance and second-place finish from this latest edition of Syracuse.
After all, last season we watched a team that had just lost Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine go all the way to the Final Four. Why should it be any tougher for this season's team to replace Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland?
That's a very good question, and at first glance it might appear that Syracuse hasn't missed a beat. Jim Boeheim's team is 4-0 and still ranked in the top 10 as it prepares to face Minnesota in the Maui Invitational (Monday at 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). Then again, winning home games against Cornell, Fordham, Colgate and St. Francis was expected of this team. The question going forward is whether the Orange can uphold a somewhat overlooked but very vital tradition: maintaining a top-notch offense.
You know all about Syracuse's impressive defense, and you saw that D in all of its glory last March in the NCAA tournament as it pummeled the previously impressive offenses of Indiana and Marquette. But what you may not know is that the Orange offense has been very good in recent years as well. In each of the past four seasons, Syracuse has finished either first or fourth in points scored per possession in Big East play. Future NBA players like Wes Johnson, Waiters and Carter-Williams have passed through the program and allowed Boeheim to put teams on the floor that were excellent on both sides of the ball.
I have little doubt that a rotation with the likes of C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman, Jerami Grant and Baye Moussa Keita will be able to defend -- there is a lot of length and athleticism in that group. I did wonder coming into the season, however, where the points would come from with this particular roster.
It's still fair to wonder that. Syracuse's shooting from the field in its first four victories has been very ordinary: 47 percent on the team's frequent 2s, and just 32 percent on its rare 3s. That hasn't mattered to this point because of huge advantages achieved by the Orange in the areas of free throw attempts and turnovers. It may matter soon, however, as the level of competition improves.
If there's a featured scorer in this bunch, the job may fall to Fair due to sheer seniority. The 6-foot-8 senior is new to that role, however, and when he was brought to Syracuse in the same recruiting class as Waiters and Fab Melo, it wasn't necessarily with the expectation that he'd develop into a featured scorer. (Much less the featured scorer. Here's one scout's assessment from October of 2009: "Offensively he projects as more of a role player in the Big East.")
Thus far this season, Fair has been on the floor for 227 possessions, and if his overall offensive rating looks a little low on paper, keep in mind his seven-turnover opening-game effort against Cornell can likely be written off as a one-time occurrence. I'm more concerned about the fact that Fair is logging so many minutes while carrying such a large load on offense. Pulling off that particular combination is a very challenging task, and it's no mark against Fair, certainly, to note that this offense is likely to function at a higher level if the career 49 percent 2-point shooter gets some help from his teammates.
And one potential problem with those teammates has already surfaced after four home games against relatively non-threatening opponents. Subtract Fair, and this team is shooting just 57 percent at the line. We assumed coming into the season that Coleman (8-of-17 from the line so far this season) and Grant (11-of-24) might be works in progress when it came to free throw shooting. That has proved to be the case, and what's particularly damaging here for the Orange is that these sophomores draw fouls at a very high rate.
That being said, the wild card here may turn out to be Michael Gbinije. It's far too early to put the 6-7 sophomore in the Coleman-Grant category, as perhaps Gbinije has just had a slow start from the line. But if his current 47 percent foul shooting continues, Boeheim will be confronted with not one, not two, but three rotation players who all draw fouls (at least six per 40 minutes) yet all shoot around 50 percent from the line.
Mind you, both Grant and (especially) Coleman arrived at Syracuse as highly ranked recruits, and indeed Grant is currently projected as a 2014 first-rounder on some mock draft boards -- no small feat in a year loaded with talent. What's at issue is not these players' obvious talent or abundant potential, but simply the extent to which they will be able to contribute effectively right now while carrying substantial workloads in the Orange offense.
If steady contributions on offense are supplied by Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis from the backcourt, Syracuse's chances of fulfilling preseason expectations will improve significantly. Over last season and four games of this campaign, Cooney has been a 3-point specialist more or less exclusively, and while those shots didn't fall his freshman season, he has started 2013-14 on a more encouraging 10-of-22 note. As for Ennis, he's been a capable pass-first point guard and notably active defender while playing in the Carrier Dome -- now we'll see what the highly touted freshman can do away from home against better competition.
If we've learned anything from watching Syracuse in recent seasons, it's that Boeheim knows how to get the most from his talent on defense, and I fully expect that this 2-3 zone will continue to give opponents a tough test. In fact, that test may be even tougher this season, with the Orange switching to the ACC and facing teams that are less familiar with their defense. Make no mistake, this group is going to win a lot of games in 2013-14. But to maintain the level of success to which Orange fans have become accustomed, Fair and his teammates are going to have to grow into their new, more demanding offensive roles -- and soon.