As they enter the 2014-15 season, the Syracuse Orange are without their three biggest contributors (Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair, and Jerami Grant) from a season ago. Naturally, expectations for Jim Boeheim's team are relatively low -- Syracuse was ranked 24th in the USA Today preseason coaches poll and 23rd in the preseason ESPN Power Rankings.
For the Orange to seriously compete for an ACC regular season title this season, it feels safe to say that a lot will have to go right. But if we have to pinpoint one x-factor for the year, who is it?
To me, there are four possible answers to that question, one of which is Trevor Cooney.
Cooney was Syracuse's third-leading scorer (12.1 PPG) in 2013-14 and led the ACC in three-pointers made per game, but struggled down the stretch -- he scored in double digits only four times in the team's final 11 games. If the sharpshooter (I use that term lightly) can be a more consistent scoring threat this season, it might make the SU offense just good enough.
Aside from Cooney, the other returning starter from last year's team (and another possible x-factor for this year's group) is forward Rakeem Christmas, whom Boeheim has been raving about since the spring. In May, the coach said he believed Christmas would be the conference's most improved player this season. Then, at media day earlier this month, Boeheim couldn't stop gushing over the role he expects Christmas to have as a leader. We know Christmas will be the anchor of Syracuse's defense, but whether or not he'll develop more of an offensive game remains to be seen. Stay tuned.
The other two potential x-factors, at least that I see, are the freshmen: Chris McCullough and Kaleb Joseph. I believe McCullough, Syracuse's lone five-star recruit in the 2014 class, can be a star. He has all the tools to make an immediate impact -- he's got size (6-foot-10), he's superbly athletic, he can score inside and out, and he protects the rim well. Perhaps most encouraging is that Boeheim has been praising him left and right, something he traditionally hasn't done with freshmen unless he really believes it's deserved.
Still, I think Joseph is this team's primary x-factor. Unlike with McCullough, I don't quite know what to expect from Joseph, who, despite what he says, must feel pressure to follow in a line of great Syracuse point guards. I love Joseph's freakishly competitive nature and his supposedly-crazy work ethic, but I question how quickly he will be able to adjust to the college game. He's raw, that's for sure. He doesn't need to be Tyler Ennis -- in fact, he's a much different player than Ennis -- but, as the point guard, he'll need to get a grasp of the offensive quickly. If he can do that, the Orange might surprise some people. If not, well, we might be in for a long season.