As we enter the 2014-15 season, expectations for the Syracuse Orange are a bit milder than they have been in recent years. Syracuse was ranked 23rd in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 and 24th in USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll.
But are there really 22 or 23 teams better than Syracuse? Because I'm having trouble buying it.
From the outside, it makes sense that there might be. Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair, and Jerami Grant (or, in other words, the heart of the 2013-14 team) are all gone.
Ennis, for a while last season, might've been the best freshman in the country. That's tough to replace, but Kaleb Joseph should be able to fill in nicely at the point guard spot.
Joseph is a much, much different player than Ennis, but that doesn't mean he can't at least come close to matching his production. In the two exhibition games, he's impressed.
Against Carleton last Sunday, Joseph was pretty convincingly the best player on the court. He finished 7-of-9 with a team-high 19 points and four assists, and he had a command of the offense that you wouldn't expect from a freshman in his first collegiate game. And in last night's rout of Adrian, Joseph struggled early but found his groove in the second half, finishing with nine points (4-of-7) and four assists.
Best of all, Kaleb probably isn't even Syracuse's best freshman. That would be Chris McCullough, the one five-star recruit Jim Boeheim and the Orange were able to lure from the Class of 2014. Boeheim has raved about McCullough and, as we saw first with Carmelo Anthony and then again with Tyler Ennis, that's not something he does with freshmen unless he really means it. McCullough might need some time before he starts to feel more comfortable playing defense in the 2-3 zone, but the 6-foot-10 forward from the Bronx has some serious potential to be reached.
And the Orange do actually return two starters from last season: Rakeem Christmas and Trevor Cooney. Christmas could be in store for a big, big season. Boeheim said in May that he thought Christmas would be the ACC's most improved player this season, and to this point, it seems like that was a reasonable thing to say. We knew coming into the season that Christmas is a force defensively, but in the two exhibition games, he's made nine of 15 shots and has scored 25 points.
As for Cooney, he's picked up in the exhibition games right where he left off last season. In other words, he's struggling with his shot, having made just two of 13 three-point attempts in the two exhibitions. But Cooney's a shooter. For now, I'm assuming that, at some point, he's going to re-find his shot.
But Syracuse's success in 2014-15 might come down to the role players -- the players who aren't Joseph, McCullough, Christmas, or Cooney. And that's where I think the Orange will get more production than people realize. Ron Patterson is 7-of-12 from beyond the arc in two games, proving that he might be the other consistent scorer this team desperately needs. Michael Gbinije played as well in the exhibitions as just about anyone, especially against Adrian, when he scored 10 points and had team-highs in assists and steals. B.J. Johnson heated up a bit in the second half of last night's win. Tyler Roberson had a poor showing last Sunday but appeared far more comfortable on Monday night. All of that, to me, is pretty encouraging for the depth of this team.
Look, Syracuse isn't going to start 25-0 this season. And the Orange probably won't be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. But this group has the potential to be better than people think, and come March Madness, they're going to be a tough, tough out.