What a difference a year makes.
Coming off a surprise run to the Final Four, Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange are faced with a challenge. Gone are the key players that led the Orange on their magical run through the NCAA tournament. Michael Gbinije and Malachi Richardson are plying their trade in the NBA, Silent G with the Pistons and Mali with Sacramento. Even the oft-maligned Trevor Cooney was able to parlay his skills into professional stints in the NBDL and Baskonia of the Euroleague. With three professional-caliber players gone from the Final Four roster, how will Jim Boeheim and staff return the Orange to the Big Dance?
The answer to that question came in many forms. There’s the top-rated recruiting class including Matthew Moyer, Taurean Thompson and New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year Tyus Battle. There’s a crop of transfers; red shirt sophomore Paschal Chukwu from Providence and graduate transfers John Gillon and Andrew White III from Colorado State and Nebraska, respectively. With NCAA sanctions putting Syracuse’s scholarship arrangement in disarray, coach Boeheim needed to be creative when reloading his roster and has put together a strong group in a relatively short period of time.
Another answer, though, may have been in the Salt City all along. True sophomore Tyler Lydon performed admirably in his rookie campaign, filling in anywhere from small forward to center. Though he’s already been tagged as one of the best college players in the country, Lydon has been overshadowed somewhat by the hype surrounding the new arrivals. His experience and versatility, though, could be the keys to success for the Orange this year.
The 2015-16 Orange were faced with a big problem, or perhaps more accurately, a Bigs problems. The returning centers were Chino Obokoh, a project player who ended up playing 156 total minutes in two years at SU, and DaJuan Coleman, a top-rated recruit plagued by injuries who barely played for almost two years. After having relied on stud post-man Rakeem Christmas the season prior, the Orange were faced with a giant hole in the middle of coach Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone.
Enter Tyler Lydon.
Despite being recruited as a SF/PF and checking in at barely over 200 pounds, Lydon spent the majority of his freshman season manning the middle for coach Boeheim. He performed well, averaging 6.7 RPG and 1.8 BPG. His 67 total blocked shots were more than double the amount of his closest teammate (Coleman, 33 blocks) and were good enough to rank in the Top 40 nationally. Offensively, the Orange played better when Lydon was in the middle. It was a smallball lineup in the spirit of the Golden State Warriors who were dominating the NBA during the same time; four three-point shooters to spread the floor and create open looks.
A look at the 2016-17 roster reveals potential for more of the same. Imagine the following; PG John Gillon (37% career 3pt.), SF Andrew White (41% 3pt in 15-16) and C Lydon (40.5% 3pt. in 15-16). Throw in freshman Battle in the SG spot and the look is very reminiscent of the lineup that helped carry a 10-seeded Orange team to the Final Four. Of course, even just three greenlight shooters is typically enough to create floor balance, but Lydon’s versatility is a luxury most teams don’t have. The stretch four has gradually made its way to the college game, and Lydon certainly fits the description. As a center, though, he takes opposing big men far away from the paint. Not only does this create driving lanes for players like White, Battle, and sophomore point guard Franklin Howard, it gives more room for SU’s other Tyler, senior power forward Tyler Roberson, to do what he does best; get up and clean the offensive glass (4 OREB/g in 15-16). Lydon is one of those rare players whose mere presence on the floor makes the game easier for his teammates in a variety of ways.
Lydon spent so much time playing center last season that it’s easy to forget that his natural position is at forward. His 6’9”, 225 pound frame screams power forward at the college level, but his skill set is ideal for a three-man. His shooting has been on display since his breakout performance during the Battle 4 Atlantis but as the season wore on, Lydon learned how to use the threat of his shooting to clear the way for drives to the rim and some of the most spectacular missed dunks this side of Michael Gbinije.
While it can be expected that Lydon will play some in the middle again during the 2016-17 season, the reloaded roster and the influx of big bodies should allow Lydon to play more at his natural position. Imagine, again, the following; PG Frank Howard (6’5”), SG Andrew White, (6’7”), SF Tyler Lydon (6’9”), PF Taurean Thompson (6’10”), C Pascal Chukwu (7’2”). Just for fun, imagine a bit more length with Tyus Battle (6’6”) in place of Howard. Holy wingspan, Batman.
What’s more, there are no Billy Celucks, Craig Forths or Fab Melos in that lineup. No plodders, no lead feet. These are all long, athletic players who can run, get up and throw down. It’s a lineup tailor-made for blocking shots, getting steals, and running the floor. All with an average height of 81 inches (that’s 6’9”, for those of you looking for your calculators). Size-wise, that’s an NBA lineup.
A big lineup also puts Lydon’s individual versatility on full display. On the perimeter he can use his height to shoot over defenders or find open teammates. Dare Rick Pitino and Louisville to play 2-3 with Lydon in the middle, picking it apart. Inside, he’s already shown flashes of a legitimate post-game. Opposing small forwards are going to have their hands full if Boeheim decides to throw it in to Lydon on the block. Memories of Michael Carter-Williams’ evisceration of Indiana spring to mind. And if opponents switch a big on him, he’ll take it outside and bury threes. Tyler Lydon is a match-up nightmare, one Syracuse fans can expect to see used in a variety of ways.
The X Factor
Coach Boeheim is already on record as saying the 2016-17 version of his Orange have potential to be one of the best teams he’s had in 41 years as head coach at Syracuse. While there are those out there who don’t quite believe the hype, it’s near impossible to dispute. With so many new faces taking over key roles, realizing that potential is going to be a challenge for SU. Boeheim and his staff have their work cut out for them as they mold a gaggle of individual talents into a cohesive unit. Throughout it all, though, Tyler Lydon will be the lynchpin. It’s his time to shine in the limelight (Orangelight?).