At point: Frank Howard — following what Boeheim dubbed a mediocre season — and a freshman. At center: a relative unknown in Paschal Chukwu — off a season-ending eye injury — and another freshman.
Transfer Geno Thorpe departed, pulling a chair from under the offense. Tyus Battle prepared to assume a monumental scoring load. Three freshmen comprised the forward position.
The Orange emerged not unscathed, but thriving on their way to the Sweet 16. Boeheim — once threatened by NCAA sanctions — now presides over a roster that features depth, cohesiveness, his son Buddy, and player-proclaimed national championship aspirations. To reinforce their garnered blessings, Class of 2019 guard Joseph Girard III committed to SU last week as a centerpiece for the next generation. Scholarship sanctions officially end following this season, but the Orange already rendered them obsolete.
To say sanctions didn’t take a beating, though, would be inaccurate. For SU, 2017-18 featured the makings of a rock bottom season for a program reeling from the impact of four lost scholarships annually, a sporadic 2016-17 and NBA Draft/transfer departures. As they struggled to restock, a faithful email took them to Slovakia to find Marek Dolezaj. Three-star recruit Oshae Brissett became far more. Continued faith in Howard and Chukwu’s development paid dividends for the defense.
They minimized their weaknesses and strung out every possession defensively through three sub-60 point defensive performances in tourney wins, through which Dolezaj emerged prominently. The team’s emphasized strengths coincidentally fell in line with the Orange’s historic defensive identity, hammering home their reemergence in a style familiar to fans.
The Orange had only twice prior missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons, in Boeheim’s fifth and sixth seasons and then 2006-08. 2016’s defiant Final Four run excited, but failed to flow into the next cohesive core. Boeheim raised expectations before 2016-17, then suffered the consequences of relying on one-year graduate transfers as core pieces and diverting from defense.
They had little choice other than pursuing that plan, but it halted the momentum of ‘16 and left them with the depth crisis of 17-18 — reinforced by injuries to Howard Washington, Matthew Moyer and Bourama Sidibe.
The staff and players, also down longtime assistant Mike Hopkins, made the best of it to the degree that their preseason storyline nationally is how great it is that their starters (un-touted last year) return in full. They weren’t ranked at any time last year, but returned in the AP’s Top-25 preseason poll for the first time since November 2016.
While Duke may never have pressed full effort into their pursuit of Girard, their victory over national runner-up Michigan and conference-rival Notre Dame could represent their most significant recruiting achievement since Battle switched from the Wolverines. Jalen Carey committed weeks earlier last year with less uncertainty, and he will likely join the NBA prior to his senior year. His class, to no fault of his own, also suffered the massive blow of Darius Bazley’s de-commitment.
In Girard III, Brycen Goodine and John Bol Ajak the Orange already rank 4th in the ACC and 25th nationally for Class of ‘19, according to 24/7 Sports. With outstanding offers to 4-5 star bigs in Isaiah Stewart (6’9”, 245), Kofi Cockburn (6’10”, 255) and Akok Akok (6’10” 195), ‘Cuse could round out nearly a full position chart in one round of recruitment. Analysts predict Stewart lands at Kentucky. Akok selected SU in his top-five while the Orange remain in Cockburn’s final eight.
Nothing’s ever set in stone, but the Orange have tentatively established a lineage from a loaded roster that’ll likely watch Battle, Oshae Brissett and several seniors depart mandating the rise of the next continuously competitive cast. That progression eluded Syracuse through the sanction years, despite the program’s momentary successes.
Those highs, in spite of the factors working against them, did maintain Syracuse’s prominence to the point where the ship never fully sank despite all the holes that formed around 2017.
“There’s a world of difference at this point right now,” Boeheim said at media day. “It makes a big difference where we are right now than where we were last year.”