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Syracuse Basketball: Four Keys to a Successful 2015-16 Season

If Syracuse wants to compete with the best in its conference, a few things need to go its way.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2015-16 season, expectations aren't exactly through the roof for Syracuse. SU won only 18 games last season and lost its best player, Rakeem Christmas, to the NBA.

With a number of new faces, this season's team is littered with unknowns. It's difficult to imagine the Orange finishing in the top five of the Atlantic Coast Conference. But if enough breaks go Syracuse's way, it could return to national relevancy.

Before SU tips off its season against Lehigh tonight, here are four keys to success in 2015-16.

1. The shooters must be as good -- or close to as good -- as Boeheim says they'll be.

SU head coach Jim Boeheim has said he expects the Orange to shoot between 25 and 30 3-pointers per game this season. He has also said that Syracuse has six players -- Trevor Cooney, Franklin Howard, Kaleb Joseph, Michael Gbinije, Tyler Lydon and Malachi Richardson -- who will be legitimate threats from beyond the arc.

Gbinije shot 42.2 percent from 3 in ACC play last season, but there's reason to doubt whether the other four players can provide similar consistency from deep. Cooney shot just 27.6 percent from 3 in conference play last season, while Joseph shot 18.8 percent in the same department. The three freshmen, meanwhile, have obviously yet to play in a regular season college basketball game. (While the two exhibitions were encouraging, it's important to remember that Syracuse played two Division II teams in those games, making it difficult to make any final conclusions.)

It's crucial for Syracuse that at least the majority of those six players prove to be reliable options from 3. The Orange probably won't be scoring much around the rim; neither starting center Dajuan Coleman nor starting power forward Tyler Roberson are expected to be particularly effective offensive players. That will leave an especially large onus on Syracuse's perimeter scoring.

2. Coleman needs to protect the rim.

During his career at Syracuse, Rakeem Christmas' biggest strength was arguably his ability to protect the paint and the rim. Last season, with Christmas playing 34.3 minutes per game, opposing teams shot just 56 percent in the lower half of the paint, according to Shot Analytics. Per 40 minutes in 2014-15, he averaged 2.9 blocks per game.

As a result, teams shied away from attacking the rim, taking just 28 percent of their shots there, according to Hoop-Math. In turn, that forced those teams into many low percentage jump shots, and Syracuse finished the season ranked 20th nationally in's adjusted defensive efficiency rating.

For the Orange to replicate that kind of defensive success in 2015-16, Dajuan Coleman must prove to be an effective rim protector. With talented big men littered throughout the conference, they'll surely be looking to go right at Coleman, who last played a regular season game in January 2014.

In 13 games during that 2013-14 season, Coleman was a solid defender, but that was mostly against weak non-conference competition. It's thus hard to know how effective he'll be this season. If he struggles, it might make sense for SU to accept that as a weakness this season and roll out smaller lineups more frequently, since those would at least elicit more floor spacing and benefit the Orange offensively.

3. Joseph has to be better. If he is, Gbinije will be, too.

Kaleb Joseph struggled badly on both ends last season. During conference play, he had an effective field goal percentage of just 39.5 percent and averaged 2.7 turnovers per 40 minutes and only 4.8 assists. He also struggled to fully grasp the 2-3 zone, leading to Boeheim often berating him for making the wrong rotations.

Leading up to this season, Boeheim has said that Joseph is greatly improved. He'll need to be.

That's mostly for obvious reasons; if Joseph is a reliable option off the bench, it'll seriously help Syracuse's depth. But it will also help Michael Gbinije.

That's because Gbinije, who will start at point guard, is most effective when he's playing small forward. If Joseph is at least adequate, he should be playing pretty significant minutes. And when he's in the game, he'll likely be playing point guard, allowing Gbinije to shift over to one of the wing positions.

4. Surviving without Boeheim.

During the first nine games of ACC play, Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins will act as the team's head coach, as Boeheim will be serving a suspension that was handed down in March as part of the NCAA's sanctions against SU. During that time, Boeheim won't just be banned from games -- he also won't be able to come to practice or even talk to the players.

In other words, Hopkins will be running the entire show. And if there's a guy to take over for Boeheim, it's Hopkins. He played for the Orange from 1989-93 and joined the coaching staff in 1995. With Boeheim set to retire after the 2017-18 season, Hopkins has also been named the head coach-in-waiting.

Still, though, being without Boeheim for an extended period of time shouldn't be dismissed; he's served as Syracuse's head coach since 1976. It will certainly be interesting to see how the team handles his absence.