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Syracuse Orange Basketball 2011-2012 Season Preview: Part II

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For Part I of the Syracuse Orange Basketball Season Preview, click here.

Here in Part II, the questions facing the 2011-2012 Syracuse basketball team continue...

Can Fab Melo, Baye Moussa Keita and Rakeem Christmas Replace Rick Jackson?

Before last season, Syracuse fans certainly expected Rick Jackson to be a critical part of the team. However, they never could have predicted just how much "Mr. Double-Double" would progress. He came into the season in fantastic shape and become such a force in the middle of the 2-3 Zone that he ended up being named Big East Defensive Player of the Year and to the All-Big East Second Team. He also averaged 13.1 PPG and 10.3 RPG on the year, hence the unofficial nickname.

Now that Jackson has moved on, in his place are three players who provide the tools necessary to pick up where he left off. The question is...can they turn those tools into quality play?

One player not among this group of big men is DaShonte Riley, who transferred to Eastern Michigan during the offseason. Riley was expected to be a key contributor this year, so losing his experience is tough. However, Riley remained an enigma and we’ll never really know what he could have done if given the opportunity.

Instead, sophomore Fab Melo is in the driver’s seat for playing time and productivity heading into the season. Or should I call him "embattled" Syracuse player Fab Melo?

Before last season, Jim Boeheim said Fab Melo would probably win Big East Freshman of the Year and many experts thought he would be one-and-done.

As Syracuse fans can tell you...not so much.

Despite flashes of potential, Fab’s season was an overall disappointment. Expectations-aside, Fab had the kind of season you might expect from a raw, freshman big man. He looked over-matched and confused and had more memorable fouls than memorable shots.

Fab’s off-season wasn’t much better. He was arrested for fourth-degree criminal mischief after an incident with his girlfriend, leading to many discussions about his off-the-court anger issues and whether or not that had something to do with a brief in-season benching. For a moment, there was a thought he might even transfer.

However, Fab got it together, played well for the Brazillian National Team in the World University Games and is expected to come back in his sophomore year as a better-conditioned athlete.

Before the 2010-’11 season, if I told you that freshman Baye Moussa Keita would end up starting a bunch of games for the Orange during the season, you would have told me I was insane. And happened. The player who was considered an afterthought in a loaded freshman class ended up being one of the most critical.

Keita became known for his aggressive, tenacious ability to grab rebounds, hustle and be SU’s "glue guy." Thanks to Fab’s troubles, Keita saw his playing time soar, though so did his fouls. If not for a late-season arm injury, he might have seen even more playing time.

Now, Keita enters his sophomore season with a ton of experience and an ever-improving skill set. Without the expectations and pressure that accompany Melo, Keita can mature at the normal pace expected of a big man. No one thinks he’s going to suddenly score double-digits each game, but if he can become a more consistent rebounder and solid defender, he could blossom into a beloved Orange.

Excuse Syracuse fans if they’re slightly-wary of freshman Rakeem Christmas’ potential. The 6’9", 230-pound phenom brings extremely-high expectations with him. A year removed from getting burned by Fab Melo’s expectations, Syracuse fans are excited but remain tempered.

That said, Christmas could end up being the third piece of the puzzle needed. Melo and Keita are tall but on the lanky side. Christmas is bulky and physical and just the right kind of big man for the Big East.

If these three guys can rotate between the 4 and 5 spots and each bring something to the table, SU fans might not miss Rick Jackson as much as they think.

Can Dion Waiters and Mookie Jones Keep Their Egos In Check?

If I told you a Syracuse basketball player has taken to Twitter to voice his displeasure about playing time, you’re probably going to guess that it’s Mookie Jones. And you’d probably be right.

Jones has become known among SU fans more for what he says on social media than what he does on the court.

Mookie seemed to calm down by the end of last season, accepting his spot deep on the SU bench. He mostly saw time in blowouts, though he also did get looks in critical moments due to his three-point shooting prowess (42%).

However, it’s Jones’ defensive liabilities remain too much for him to see significant playing time, not to mention the quality of players ahead of him on the roster.

With every shooter returning and freshman shooter Trevor Cooney coming in to fight for playing time, it doesn’t look like Mookie will see a lot more PT this year, unless he earns it. If that’s the case, Orange fans will be keeping a close eye on his Facebook status and Twitterfeed to see how he feels about it.

Meanwhile, there was a time back in April when it seemed like Dion Waiters had played his final game in orange.

Back in January, Waiters reportedly said a not-so-nice thing to Jim Boeheim during a game, which led to an unofficial suspension. Waiters returned to the lineup and continued to fight for playing time. Then, in April, Jim Boeheim told a reporter that Waiters’ return to SU was "up in the air" and that "sometimes change is good for everyone." After some tense days of waiting, Dion confirmed that he would return for his sophomore year and the issue was dropped.

But don’t think it’s not going to be in the back of everyone’s head this year. There’s going to be a microscope of Waiters all year. Every time he looked annoyed or frustrated and every time Boeheim grills him on the bench, SU fans will begin wondering if the other shoe is about to drop.

Waiters can put it all behind him by putting his head down and working on becoming a team player and leader, just like cousin Scoop has done. Whether or not he will remains to be seen.

Wither James Southerland?

Junior James Southerland is something of a forgotten talent on the Syracuse roster. After an uneventful freshman season, Southerland briefly became a regular member of the Orange rotation last year.

Southerland broke out in an early game against Morgan State with 18 points. A few weeks later he would score 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting against Big East rival Notre Dame. He even ended up spot-starting for the Orange for a few games.

Unfortunately for him, his performance soon dropped off a cliff. Boeheim lost faith in him and that was the kiss of death. For the remainder of the season, Southerland saw action mostly only in garbage time, if he played at all.

So where does James Southerland stand in 2011-’12? The fact that Kris Joseph is still here means that Southerland isn’t going to get the kind of playing time he might have gotten otherwise at the wing. If he does want to find a way back into Boeheim’s good graces, he’s going to have to find a consistency on offense and defense that was lacking last year. Easier said than done. Let’s hope he can find it.

How Much Will The Freshmen Contribute?

Last season, four freshman were key contributors for the Syracuse Orange. Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair, Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita logged some serious minutes and had a major impact on the year, for better or worse.

This season, a trio of new faces join them bring lofty expectations with them. So can Rakeem Christmas, Michael Carter-Williams and Trevor Cooney follow through?

Christmas is the most-likely to contribute right away. As discussed, his size is going to be necessary for the Orange to remain competitive in the Big East. If he can bring some scoring and rebounding with him, all the better.

Michael Carter-Williams is considered one of the best shooting guards in the Class of 2012 and on many teams he’d probably be a shoo-in for playing time. However, if Syracuse has a a waiting list right at any one spot right now, that’s it. The Scoop-Dion-Triche triumvirate returns and none of them want to lose minutes, especially to a player who isn’t ready. We’ll know more about MCW’s chances for quality PT early on in the season.

Trevor Cooney is the wild card of the group. He could end up being a three-point specialist for the Orange. However, if he can’t consistently-shoot in the 40% range, Boeheim might not have much use for him this year. There are a bunch of guys who can shoot the three-ball already and not much need for another player that doesn’t bring multiple tools with him. Keep an eye on Cooney to see how he develops.

Is The Schedule Working For Us Or Against Us?

"Syracuse won’t play a game outside of New York, New Jersey or Connecticut until mid-January."

That was the ever-popular sentiment coming from ESPN pundits and other college basketball analysts last season and it made a lot of Orange fans chuckle.

The implication was, of course, that Syracuse doesn’t travel, even for road or neutral games. As if it was Syracuse’s fault that their first few Big East games were either at home or against teams in Connecticut and New Jersey. That this also included neutral games in Atlantic City, NJ, which is farther from Syracuse, NY than Pittsburgh, PA, only added to the joke.

The unfunny part is that the implication also served to discredit any notable victories the Orange had in the non-conference part of the schedule. A win over Michigan State didn’t hold weight because it was played at Madison Square Garden, Syracuse’s "other" home court.

No matter that most other college basketball teams follow the same strategy and often only travel far once in November and December. Jim Boeheim and Syracuse have a reputation and that reputation will be played up from now until Jimmy’s career ends.

SU doesn’t do much to escape the reputation this season. The Orange once again play almost all of their non-conference games in New York State, though they will travel to Raliegh, NC in December, ensuring that no one can say SU hasn’t left the Tri-State Area before Big East play.

Most of the games on the non-conference slate look winnable. The one sure challenge on the schedule is a December 2nd tip against nationally-ranked Florida. The Gators will have revenge on their minds after losing to the Orange a couple years back in Tampa.

Syracuse also plays in the NIT Season Tip-Off. They’ll have to win two games in the Dome in order to move on to MSG. Once there, they are likely to face Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech or Stanford in each of the two games. The Orange will be favored in that quartet but all three provide a challenge.

A December 17th trip to NC State might not sound tough but anytime you’re playing a road game in the state of North Carolina, bad things can happen.

Meanwhile, the Big East schedule will likely be a tough as ever. UConn, Louisville, Pitt, Notre Dame, Villanova, Georgetown and Marquette remain formidable and no conference game can ever be overlooked (Seton Hall in the Dome, anyone?).

One February stretch in particular, in which SU takes on Georgetown, UConn and Louisville within six days of one another, will likely be the litmus test by which the Orange are measured heading into the post-season.

As usual, Syracuse should cruise in the early part of the schedule. However, there are few gimmes once they get into December and there are certainly none once Big East play begins.

Except maybe DePaul.

The Verdict?

Does the 2011-’12 Syracuse basketball team have the talent and ability to return to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons? They most certainly do. On paper, this is a team that can go that far...and maybe even farther.

However, as we’ve seen in years past, will talent and ability translate into the actual gameplay? It’s one of those things that’s so hard to predict. We weren’t sure if they would be able to last year and they put together a pretty impressive season.

A "good, but not great" season.

Syracuse fans aren’t unrealistic. But they also remember a time when "good, but not great" wasn’t good enough. And those days feel like they’re back. SU is an elite basketball school and we expect to be nationally-ranked all year. We expect to do well in the Big East. We expect to go far in the NCAA Tournament.

Like I said, expectations are fluid. However unlike last year, expectations begin extremely high. For the time being, "good ,but not great" doesn’t sound good enough for the 2011-’12 season.

Let’s see how this team manages those expectations. It should be fun to watch.