So far this season, watching the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team has been kind of like walking into a theater without having seen a single preview of the movie about to play. Sure the name of the flick, or even knowing one of the leading actors could give you a clue of what's to come on the big screen — for example, spot Will Ferrell, expect Daddy’s Home 2 and not Murder on the Orient Express.
Similarly, given that it's SU and Jim Boeheim on the marquee, there is a level of obviousness to each season’s potential plotline: competitiveness and some style of March hoops.
Yet, maybe for the first time in a while, there might be more unknowns than knowns at work here. Obviously, there’s a pretty good understanding that SU won’t be a prominently featured player in “One Shining Moment.” But are you totally positive the final scene will be in the NIT? Or that the season will all end in any round of the NCAA?
Then there’s Geno Thorpe’s “exit, stage left,” another variable for Team Variable.
Sure, “stuff” happens every season and we don’t always get what is expected with Jim Boeheim's teams. It was just last year when I KNEW Syracuse was going to be a top-level team; an outfit that could have been one of the final four teams left playing in 2017. Then the stink-bomb season blew a funk right into all of our unsuspecting nostrils.
There have also been plenty of other surprisingly happy "WTF" years. One obvious choice would be 1996, when SU ran all of the way to the national championship game. It was a fun team featuring the great John Wallace, but from early on that group overachieved in a big way.
Actually, 2003's title-winning team came a year after an NIT trip and was led by a couple of unproven freshman in Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara. In November of that season, I don't think many people were dreaming about a chance to watch a New Orleans sequel.
Either way, Syracuse has zagged and zigged more times than an out-of-town driver trying to rip down I-81 in a snow storm. But what exactly would a zig or zag be this year? Is this a feel-good, coming-of-age movie or some kind of sad dramedy? I can’t really get a good feel on it, either way.
We do know Tyus Battle is the star, in that there is no wondering. He’s the one who, if basketball really was a movie, has already delivered "Oscar-worthy performances” and will surely provide a few more offerings for the Academy. The sophomore's all but guaranteed to be on the next level next year and for good reason.
But the Orange remain off the map nationally in some part, great or small, because of the supporting cast members. That’s not a dig at the talent in the cast; it’s just strange to see so many new faces in key places.
There are, though, reasons to not sneak out of the theater early here:
- Oshae Brissett is clearly a future leading man, someone with athleticism and range -- a possible "drool-inducer” for NBA GMs.
- Marek Dolezaj can’t be typecast because he’s perfect for every role on the court. Loose ball? Dolezaj is first to the floor. A batted-around rebound? Dolezaj will corral it. Need a finisher on a fastbreak? Dolezaj’s there. He seemingly is everywhere. In fact, he’s behind you right now, waiting to pounce.
- Other yet-to-be-fully-developed characters to choose from include: Frank Howard battling back from the abyss; Bourama Sidibe and Pachal Chukwu growing into their parts; and the waiting-to-be-unleashed Matthew Moyer (who finally looked comfortable against Connecticut on one of the biggest stages in basketball).
Up until the first few scenes played out, though, I wasn’t sure if any of those guys were ready for primetime. If someone had asked me to make another “mountain top” prediction a month ago, I would have figured SU to be maybe an entertaining but ultimately forgettable team. Destined to lose more than it won. That, by the way, could still be very well true because the entire ACC slate is still waiting. Plus, Boeheim needs to find some more (consistent) scoring somewhere in that lineup. But in a short time we’ve seen something we didn’t witness too often last year: defend and rebound.
The defense and the ability to snag some boards are what led to beating Maryland last month and Connecticut last week. Those are two types of wins that escaped Syracuse a season ago. Even in a double-digit loss to Kansas, there were positives to take out of that loss. There’s a back-to-wall grit that’s hard to quantify. And because of that, this team feels more watchable, more likeable than in recent years.
Not because the guys on the roster are funnier or have better personalities than other players from recent years. Instead, there is a just a little more joy, maybe even more excitement because of the element of the unknown. There are questions surrounding the limits and ceilings for everyone here. We don’t know what to know yet. And that’s the hook, the reason to sit down and watch.
Because nine games in, and with the college basketball world a stage, Syracuse might just be sneaking its way into the spotlight for a bit.