When the Syracuse Orange basketball season started, there was a sense of hubris in the air. SU had surprised everyone last year and made it all the way to the Final Four. For all of the years of hate lobbed at Jim Boeheim, the zone and other aspects of the program, getting to the sport’s final weekend as a 10-seed felt like validation.
That validation spilled over into grandiose predictions about what this year would bring. “Of course we’re going back to the Final Four. This year’s team is more talented than last year’s” was a common refrain heard about the Orange interwebs.
Sitting at 7-5, with close to zero hope of making the NCAA Tournament now barring some major turnaround, it makes sense we didn’t see this coming. We’ve never been here before.
Look at this team. Who do you REALLY know on this roster? DaJuan Coleman’s been here awhile, and his story to come back from injury is great. Can you say much else about him? Tyler Roberson is an enigma on and off the court. Tyler Lydon came in with expectations still latching on from last year’s tourney run, but what do we really know about him, either?
Then you look at the newer faces: Tyus Battle (a Michigan flip), Taurean Thompson (arrived at the 11th hour), Andrew White III (Kansas transfer via Nebraska) and John Gillon (Arkansas-Little Rock transfer via Colorado State).
These are the players eating up the lion’s share of the minutes and shots for the Orange, and yet we don’t really KNOW them. That, more than most details, is what’s set us apart from other programs up until now. We KNOW our guys, and they know us (sometimes for worse). We’ve always been a program of known quantities. This year’s more of a team of mercenaries.
That doesn’t make any of these guys bad. Or the decisions they made to come here bad. Or Boeheim’s decisions to bring them in (especially the transfers) bad ones either. It’s just pointing out how different this team is than what we’ve known this program to be. It seems like more of a fan observation that should have no effect on the on-court product. But the problem is they don’t really know each other, either.
Look at any previous team, and you’ll find either established friendships, known narratives about players, accomplished four-year careers or quantifiable one-and-done talent. Even the most beleaguered SU squads of the past had something easily identifiable to say about them:
2015-16: Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney check multiple boxes, Malachi Richardson was a legitimate future NBA player.
2014-15: Cooney was known, and Rakeen Christmas had an all-world season culminating what had been a strange career to that point. We knew him and his quirky personality quite a bit, however.
2007-08: The “Dynasty” team was ravaged with injuries before we even got to conference play, but we knew what we had in Donte Greene and Jonny Flynn every single night.
2001-02: We knew these guys. Preston Shumpert, Hakim Warrick, Kueth Duany, Craig Forth, DeShaun Williams — known or would-be-known quantities by season’s end.
1996-97: Similar to this year’s team, coming off a surprise Final Four run and replacing a lot, but guys like Jason Cipolla, Otis Hill and Todd Burgan were all quantifiable entities for fans (and each other).
1981-82: Boeheim’s worst winning percentage as a head coach (.552), but still, you knew what you had. Leo Rautins’s knee injury had a larger impact on that win total (16) than anything else. He was a very known (and excellent) quantity as well.
You get the point.
This team doesn’t feel like any of those. In an era of one-and-dones, Syracuse has always seemed different. We’ve had plenty of “rentals” too, mind you (one Carmelo Anthony comes to mind most of all). But the bones of the team, so to speak, were established, known players.
Can this team fix that before the season’s over? Maybe. But in reality, this is something you can’t just readjust on a whim. We don’t know these guys and we won’t, in all likelihood before this year ends. They don’t know each other (and maybe Boeheim doesn’t either), and that’s unlikely to change, too.
No matter what happens this year, the writing’s on the wall for this to be a consistent issue as well. The 2017 class is only two-deep so far, with most top prospects committed already. The Orange will lose a lot after this season. Boeheim’s likely going the mercenary route once again, but to what end?
Have we lost our program, or our idea of what it is? In the short-term, potentially. It’s not necessarily a fitting end for the Boeheim era. But it’s one that we’re dealing with, like it or not.