Strong guard play is the lifeblood of basketball success at any level, but it's especially emphasized in the college game. At Syracuse, solid guard play has paved the program's rich history.
Jim Boeheim has experienced a golden age of guard play in the last half decade or so with names like Andy Rautins, Michael Carter-Williams, Dion Waiters and Tyler Ennis but last year's backcourt stumbled. When the backcourt struggled -- and it did often -- Boeheim elected to go with his upperclassmen Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney. With those two fifth-year seniors back in the fold, Kaleb Joseph another year wiser, and an exciting new freshman in Frank Howard, the Syracuse Orange backcourt could be a phoenix lying in the ashes.
Gbinije is a point-forward by all accounts. He'll see time at both the guard and forward spots in the zone, but for all intents and purposes we'll solely talk about him at the guard spot in this preview. Gbinije possesses extreme length and athleticism atop the 2-3 zone. This will help him get in passing lanes with his quickness and long reach. He'll have to lead by example, especially on the defensive end.
The smart money is on Gbinije to lead the team in scoring as he's the team's best and most versatile player. Gbinije is at his best driving the lane and making plays but he's a very capable shooter and passer. He has good instincts on the court, often seeing plays happen before they develop. Gbinije is capable of playing positions one through four on the court and he'll see time at just about all of those positions. Don't expect to see Silent G on the bench much this season. Did we forget to mention he'll be an olympian next summer?
Trevor Cooney (And The Cooney Brothers)
Trevor Cooney might be the most under-appreciated Syracuse player in recent memory. It always seems as if Trevor is subject to unfair criticism. To be fair, there's no denying that he needs to be a more consistent shooter, but he does a plethora of thing well on the court that go unnoticed. First, he's a great teammate. Cooney is usually the first to help a fallen teammate to his feet, or the first to step in the middle of an altercation. Secondly, he's rarely out of position on the defensive end. He knows exactly where he needs to be which has allowed him to come away with 120 steals in the last two seasons. Lastly, although unquantifiable, he's the hardest worker on the team. Donna Ditota wrote a nice piece a few weeks ago profiling his work ethic.
Cooney will get his teammates open looks simply by being on the floor. He will still be face-guarded all season, but this will allow for driving and passing lanes in the half court and open shots on the permiter. With multiple outside scoring threats this season, Syracuse has a chance to make teams pay. Don't expect teams to not face-guard Cooney, but having other shooters on the floor should free him up for a few extra open shots a game. Cooney Face game proper, kids.
If there were a player on this year's team who was subject to more criticism than Cooney, it would undoubtedly be Kaleb Joseph. Joseph has suffered enough vitriol in one season at Syracuse to last a lifetime, but the sophomore looks to be improved. He spent the summer playing for the USA East Coast team and worked industriously on his jumpshot. Joseph doesn't have to have a monster season in his antepenultimate year -- he just has to play smart, run the offense and take good shots. Joseph has also added 16 pounds to his once slender frame and is donning a new hairstyle this season.
Frank Howard is the latest tall guard to play at Syracuse. Standing at 6-foot-5, Frank just might have the highest ceiling of any other guard on the Syracuse roster, but figures to be the fourth man in that rotation. He's an excellent passer with a a solid mid range game. Howard can finish around the rim and even knock down outside shots. It will be interesting to see if he can crack Boeheim's rotation and how Mike Hopkins will manage his minutes in the first nine games of ACC play.
Soup to nuts, the backcourt should be improved from a season ago with everyone one year better, the loss of Ron Patterson and addition of Frank Howard. What do you say, Orange Nation? What are you most excited to see from this year's backcourt? Let us know in the comment section below.