Pack your bags. We're going on a road trip.
After years of hearing pundits complain that his teams never go anywhere or play anybody in the non-conference, Syracuse Orange coach Jim Boeheim is taking his squad south and west to take on the San Diego St. Aztecs in a PR stunt dubbed "The Battle on the Midway". It'll be Syracuse's first game of the season that counts. Tip-off is 7:00PM ET on November 9th. If the fact that Syracuse is leaving the state of New York in the month of November fails to impress you, then maybe the venue will; the flight deck of the USS Midway in San Diego, CA.
San Diego St. is the most formidable season-opening opponent Syracuse has had since the Orange dropped a 70-63 decision to Memphis in Carmelo Anthony's first game as an Orangeman. The Aztecs finished second in the Mountain West Conference, losing in the conference tournament finals to the New Mexico Lobos. San Diego St. was a 6-seed in the NCAA tourney, but dropped its
first second round game to 11-seed North Carolina St. to finish its season 26-8.
Coach Steve Fisher has had his team among the best mid-majors in the country and the 2012-13 season doesn't look to be any different. The Aztecs return four starters, including their leading scorer, junior guard Jamaal Franklin. Franklin's 17.4 points per game led the conference and the addition of 7.9 rebounds per game were enough to earn him MWC Player of the Year honors. In fact, Steve Fisher has his four top scorers back from last season, Franklin and fellow back court mates Xavier Thames, Chase Tapley and James Rahon. Make no mistake, the Aztecs are a tested and talented team that will provide the Orange a stiff challenge right out of the gate.
Then, of course, the venue isn't exactly in Syracuse's favor either. San Diego might be known for its sunny skies and fair weather, but it's also just about as far from Syracuse as one can go while remaining in the continental United States. The game might not be staged in San Diego State's home gym but the Aztecs at least get to stay semi-local. The pundits will be sure to remind us that this is technically a neutral court game, but in reality, it's no different than Syracuse playing Kansas in Kansas City or Florida in Tampa (both Orange wins, BTW). Hell, it's no different that when Syracuse plays a "neutral" game at Madison Square Garden. The advantage clearly lies with the Aztecs. The one saving grace is that, due to limited seating and outrageous ticket prices, school representation is likely to be roughly equal and a virtual non-factor.
Still, it's not all doom and gloom for the Orange. They have a pretty good team of their own, stocked with young talent looking to make their mark. Unlike the Aztecs, most of the guys taking the court for Syracuse have served as role players thus far in their careers. Even the most experienced of them, senior guard Brandon Triche, has served in a secondary role despite starting every game of his college career. The only other scholarship senior on the roster is James Southerland, best known for his sweet looking jumper, mercurial play and comical Twitter pictures. Junior swing man C.J. Fair played significant minutes during his freshman and sophomore campaigns but has yet to face the pressure of being relied on to produce at a high level every game. Fair is expected to have a break out year now that he has the chance to be a focal point of the team and also to move back to his more natural small forward position. His performance could be the key for the Orange, not only against the Aztecs, but for the whole season. The experience is there. These guys have seen it all and been in just about every situation imaginable. What remains to be seen is if that experience translates to leadership.
Then, there are the young guns. After the graduation of Syracuse fan favorite Scoop Jardine, Boehiem is expected to hand the team over to sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams. McDubz saw a fair amount of court time early last season and showed enough flashes of ability to make most fans comfortable with his role as point guard of the future. The Syacuse 2-3 zone will eliminate the need for MCW to shut down the MWC's best one-on-one, but the matchup between the Orange and Aztec back courts will be highlighted by Carter-Williams and Franklin.
MCW's classmate, sophomore F/C Rakeem Christmas, is also looking to establish himself after playing a secondary role last season. Despite starting most games, he received what Syracuse fans have come to know as the "Fab Melo Treatment"; being on the court for tip-off and not much longer. Still, when starting center Fabricio Melo was ruled ineligible for the NCAA tournament, Rak was a capable replacement (not the dreaded "Dashonte Riley Situation"). After a summer in the weight room, Christmas is looking forward to spending more time in the paint and could serve as a significant advantage against the Aztecs. At 6'9" and over 240 pounds, he'll outsize every player on the San Diego State roster. This isn't to say that the game plan should be to force feed the post, only that the Orange will have a clear size advantage, especially down low.
The only player for either side larger than Christmas is Syracuse freshman big man DaJuan "No, I'm NotRelated to Derrick" Coleman. Even if the 6'9", 288 lb frosh only sees spot duty as a back up against the Aztecs, he'll immediately have the upper hand in the post. Among the other untested Orange are fellow true-freshman forward Jerami Grant (who, apparently, grew a foot and a half last week) and red-shirt freshman sharpshooter Trevor Cooney. It's hard to say what these players might add outside of their specific skill sets. Coleman is a bruising interior player who would run over his own mother for a rebound. Cooney is a three point specialist. Grant is one of those guys with freakish, Plastic Man length. Of the three, look for Cooney to have the most immediate impact. He fills the spot-up shooter role nicely as a backup two-guard and a year of practice under Boeheim and his staff will have him well prepared to step in and contribute right away.
As the 2012 basketball season draws closer, Syracuse fans have reason to be optimistic. The Orange have a great chance to follow up one of the program's best ever seasons with another strong showing. Playing a strong opponent like San Diego State right off the bat is a tough assignment. There will be a lot of work to do between the time practice starts in October and tip-off on the USS Midway. All those that bleed orange will find out right away just how good this season's edition of Syracuse basketball really is. All that can be hoped for is for that lesson to come along with a win.