In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Syracuse.
1. Jim Calhoun’s friend and longtime adversary, Jim Boeheim, is inextricably tied to the former Huskies coach. He’s a similarly brusque Big East icon. He and Calhoun battled in the Big East for nearly 30 years, were inducted into the Hall of Fame together in 2005, and were Kasparov-level opponents in one of the greatest games of all time. With Calhoun retiring and Syracuse now embarking on its final year in the Big East, one of the sport’s most recognizable eras is ending.
What I’m saying here -- bear with me, Cuse fans, the point is coming -- is that there are obvious through lines between these two giants of the sport, if you’re interested in drawing them. But I can’t help notice the one big difference.
Over the final years of his career, Calhoun often seemed to be struggling against its end by sheer force of will. Lately, his teams ranged from predictably dominant to suddenly rebuilding, from unlikely national champions to ineligible to compete in the NCAA tournament. Even when he was on top, Calhoun was scratching and clawing, refusing to go gently into that good night. From afar, Calhoun made the process of coaching at the collegiate level -- of keeping up on recruiting, of pushing players to be their best, of defending every inch of success he’d earned -- look daunting, even brutal.
By contrast -- after more than 30 years and nearly 900 wins and an altogether amazing career -- Boeheim’s outfit is cruising. Well-oiled. Smooth. He hasn’t a lost a step.
Frankly, he makes this thing look easy.
Last season, Boeheim had yet another loaded Syracuse team, which lost exactly one game in the entire regular season. It failed to reach the Final Four, but it was an unquestionably excellent (34–3, to be exact) year.
Then, in the offseason, Syracuse lost four starters -- arguably its four most important players -- to graduation and the NBA draft. For most programs, this would be time to recalibrate expectations, a time for rebuilding and restoration. Not at Syracuse. Not under Boeheim. Instead, Boeheim is likely to have one of the two or three best teams in the Big East, with NBA talent all over the floor, and the potential to reach the Final Four.
On a day-to-day basis, Boeheim no doubt works as hard as any coach in the country. But as a program, Syracuse is humming, and Boeheim hardly seems to be breaking a sweat.
2. Which is not to say the Orange don’t have their work cut out for them in 2012–13. Of course they do. Replacing the combination of talent and experience lost in the departures of Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph and Fab Melo -- a four-year guard, a top-five NBA draft pick, a versatile swingman and one of the best shot-blockers in the country, respectively -- is no easy task.
But the point of No. 1’s lengthy preamble was to hammer home how just well positioned Syracuse is to do just that.
Point guard duties will be handled by senior Brandon Triche, who, with Jardine’s absence, will be allowed for the first time in his career to play the score-second point guard role which has always suited him best. Likewise, Syracuse has a bevy of returning wingmen ready to take on larger offensive roles, while maintaining the impenetrability of Boeheim’s trademark 2–3 zone. The 6-foot–8 C.J. Fair is excellent in mid-range space, and could be one of the Big East’s breakout forwards with more touches and minutes. James Southerland is a 6-9 inside-out threat who posted a 121.0 offensive rating in 2011–12. Baye Keita is 6-10, moves really well for his size, and blocked 9.2 percent of opponents’ available shots last season.
Which brings us to Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman. Christmas was a highly touted recruit in the 2011 class; Coleman is one of the best players at the center position in the class of 2012. Both players should make an immediate impact. Christmas is a big-time sophomore breakout candidate. Coleman’s combination of size and skills is beloved by scouts. The only concern with the freshman is maintaining an ideal weight. But by all accounts, both Christmas and Coleman have transformed their bodies this offseason; Christmas has become more mobile and added muscle to his upper body, and Coleman has dropped his body fat percentage to its lowest point since he was in eighth grade.
Despite so much roster turnover this offseason, this Syracuse team still has a host of players -- lanky, athletic, versatile, skilled, even bruising on the low block -- to keep the Orange in fine shape on both ends of the floor.
3. And then there’s Michael Carter-Williams.
The No. 21-ranked player in the class of 2011, Carter-Williams played only 18.2 percent of his team’s available minutes in 2011–12. Jardine and Triche were locked-in starters, and Waiters was a dynamic force off the bench; it’s hard to play with those three guys in front of you. Now that Jardine and Waiters are gone, there will be plenty of minutes and plenty of shots for a shooting guard who ranked behind only three players at his position in the class of 2011: Austin Rivers, Bradley Beal, and P.J. Hairston.
Everything I’ve heard, read and been told about Carter-Williams is that he has star potential, that he may morph from a relatively unknown and little-used prospect to an absolute star in his second season. We’ll have to wait to see what Carter-Williams can do in extended action before we go crowning anybody, but at this point it has become difficult not to believe the hype.
And now we’ve come full circle: The fact that Boeheim has a player like Carter-Williams waiting in the wings -- a guy who arguably would have started for all but three or four teams in the country last season -- is a testament to what Boeheim continues to maintain at Syracuse.
Year after year, he throws a mass of talented bodies at overwhelmed Big East (and soon ACC) opponents, year after year they run that vaunted 2-3 zone, and year after year Orange fans are treated to teams that pile up wins en route to realistic runs at national championships.
This kind of streamlined success can't be simple. But even in the twilight of his brilliant career, Boeheim almost always makes it seem that way.
[Correction: An original edition of this post called DaJuan Coleman the son of former NBA and Syracuse star Derrick Coleman. They share no relation. I apologize for the error. -- Eamonn]