Nearly two months to the day after he assumed the role as head coach for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team, Adrian Autry secured top-40 recruit Donnie Freeman to the program.
Since taking over the Orange on March 10 following Jim Boeheim’s departure, Autry faced an unforgiving path forward, including a roster influx, and the daunting task of taking over for a legend, even if the program had lost some of its shine in recent seasons.
But adding Freeman - the sixth-best power forward and 32nd-best recruit from the 2024 cycle - was bigger than just adding a high-profile recruit. As Freeman said during his commitment, the program rediscovered its glamour:
“Syracuse basketball is back.”
Is Syracuse basketball actually “back”? Well...
Syracuse men’s basketball lost the magic that once powered the program through some memorable, successful multi-decade relevance. That’s not to criticize Boeheim in the slightest for the Orange’s years of glory (33 NCAA Tournament appearances, 20 Sweet Sixteens, three championship game nods, and a title) speaks volumes.
But, the seeds of regression were planted the moment Syracuse’s succession plan to bring in Mike Hopkins never panned out. A few memorable postseason runs in 2016 and 2021 were nice, yet in the long-term, the program started to lag behind on recruitment, chemistry, and adapting to the modern college basketball landscape on and off the court.
Let’s be clear that it is still way too early to fully evaluate Autry, but the initial reviews are certainly positive on the player personnel front. Autry and his staff hit the recruitment trail almost immediately after he landed the coaching gig.
Freeman and Elijah Moore headline a 2024 recruitment class which sits seventh-best in the country as of Thursday.
There were also the acquisitions via the transfer portal. Landing Notre Dame’s J.J. Starling (a former five-star recruit) and Auburn’s Chance Westry (who ESPN ranked as a top-40 recruit for the class of 2022) is exactly what Autry was looking for: high-upside players with untapped potential and a desire to prove their worth. If Syracuse’s luck pans out (barring any catastrophe, which you never know these days), Florida State’s Naheem McLeod could be wearing an orange jersey by Tuesday.
Autry can clearly add talent and, more importantly, there is an element of connecting with players and having a greater understanding of modern college basketball that won’t show up on any stat sheet or factoid, but something he clearly possesses.
Yes, Syracuse struggled in recent seasons on the court with a lack of NBA caliber talent. Schemes and strategy can help overcome a talent disparity but when it comes down to it, the game is often decided by the team with the better players.
Autry proclaims to be more adept to changing schemes, strategies, and lineups as long as it elevates the Orange’s chances of winning. He’s emphasized bringing new ideas to the table, but not shying away from the standard which brought ‘Cuse to its glory days.
Keep in mind that this season is all about embracing a new identity. Whatever your opinions are on Jesse Edwards and Joe Girard are, losing both through the transfer portal is nothing to look over. Then again, this is a reset. Yes, Edwards and Girard were incredibly productive, but their weaknesses clearly glared during Syracuse’s last two seasons. Could losing them both hurt the Orange in the immediate? It’s entirely possible. Is it the end of the world? Not exactly.
In addition to all the incoming crop of talent, bringing back all four of Chris Bell, Benny Williams, Maliq Brown, and Justin Taylor after a year’s worth of college reps is huge. Suddenly, the Orange possess elements they rarely had before: lineup versatility, the ability to play multiple schemes, and having guys with multiple skill sets. That’s a good floor to begin with for Autry. And of course, depending on how Judah Mintz’s NBA Draft prospects shake out, he could be back for next season.
Let’s be clear that this will likely not be a one-year, magical turnaround. The Orange look to be nowhere in NCAA Tournament consideration for 2023-2024. Yet, similar to what coach Felisha Legette-Jack pulled off this past season with the women’s team, a similar feeling of optimism surrounds the program. That’s progress in it of itself.
There’s still a lot to sort out between now and the start of the season. There’s also a lot to like after two months.
For Autry, the work has only just begun.