On the back of last week’s news that Judah Mintz would return to the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball program for a sophomore season, the roster is now set and we can begin to get an idea of what the team will look like ahead of the 2023-24 season.
With that in mind, we decided to take a look at some of the biggest questions facing the basketball program as it goes from a storied, 47-year Hall-of-Famer to newly minted head coach.
By all accounts, it’s been a gangbuster offseason since Adrian Autry took the helm. He retained both assistant coaches and made one new hire in Brendan Straughn. Autry managed to keep the entire 2022 freshman class intact to return for their sophomore season — no small feat. The only blunder of the offseason was the inability to retain Jesse Edwards for a fifth year. But the Syracuse staff did an excellent job addressing needs in the transfer portal, securing commitments from JJ Starling, Chance Westry, Kyle Cuffe Jr. and Naheem McLeod. Getting Mintz back was the feather in the cap.
Autry and staff have done all they can do up to this point. So while keeping in mind that it’s still early days, here are some of the biggest questions Autry will look to address as he moves from associate to head coach.
How much zone vs. how much man?
The question isn’t whether Autry will employ Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone or man-to-man defense. Rather, how much zone vs. how much man will he play? Autry has kept his answer close to the vest since taking the helm, but based on his comments in the offseason both zone and man will be part of the defensive strategy.
Interestingly, the 2023-24 Syracuse roster appears built for zone. But the height, length and athleticism certainly translate to man defense as well.
"Man-to-Man is 100% on the table." @coach_griffin1 tells the guys on #OrangeNation that this Syracuse team is really well suited for zone, but it sounds like he still expects the Orange to play plenty of man D. pic.twitter.com/FdqaWMgIhh— Cuse Sports Talk (@CuseSportsTalk_) June 5, 2023
For a program that’s used to fielding a roster that leads the nation in average heigh (KenPom), Syracuse ranked No. 52 in that category last season with an average player height of 78 inches, or 6.5 feet. That was the lowest rank for Syracuse since 2008-09.
Syracuse got taller in the offseason with additions of Starling (6-foot-4), Westry (6-foot-6) and McLeod (7-foot-4). The roster might be tailored for the 2-3 zone, so whether Autry uses it as the primary, secondary or even tertiary defense will be interesting.
While comparing Autry to his predecessor will be unfair, it’s inevitable and perhaps unavoidable. Boeheim’s offense was built around giving the most skilled players offensive freedom with the ball and exploiting mismatches. But will we see more offensive intervention out of Autry?
If he plans to play with tempo like he vocalized in his introductory press conference, he certainly built a roster in the offseason capable of playing in transition with depth to back it up. As modern basketball becomes more positionless, Autry tailored the roster with tall, athletic and skilled guards capable of playing either guard spot to compliment his fleet of versatile forwards. This could be a roster built for rebounding and transition offense. But what will the half court offense look like?
- Late game offense
Along those lines, how does the late game offense unfold? Boeheim’s keep it simple approach involved getting the ball into the hands of his best player and letting them make a play. That strategy certainly worked on many occasions.
But overall, does Autry breathe new life into the offense? Perhaps we see something that resembles a modern offensive philosophy in college basketball.
In that regard, how deep is Autry willing to go? With a few exceptions, his predecessor was notorious for having a short rotation of the most trusted players, usually around seven players or sometimes as few as six.
If Autry sticks to his vision of getting up and down, is he willing to go as deep as nine or even ten players? There are always outliers, but most coaches in college basketball play a seven or eight man rotation. Playing uptempo doesn’t necessarily mean coaches have to go deep into their bench, but with so little known about the offensive approach under Autry, this aspect of his coaching style will be highly intriguing.
Scheduling represents a complicated aspect of running a program. With 20 league games, the ACC, in theory, offers a challenging enough schedule that allows teams opportunity to forge a path to the NCAA Tournament. Conference scheduling is up to the league. The non-conference scheduling up to individual programs.
The rub: Too easy of a non-conference schedule could leave your program on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament (2016-17 Syracuse). Too challenging of a non-conference schedule can bury your team with losses early and force teams to climb out from a hole (2021-22 Syracuse). Coaches are looking for the Goldilocks non-conference schedule. This all matters in the NET, the main sorting tool used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to evaluate teams for at-large consideration.
There are dollars to be had scheduling “buy games” in the non-conference, too, i.e. — Syracuse can afford to pay an athletic department ~$100,000 for its basketball team to come to the JMA Wireless Dome in the early season and revenue from ticket sales, concessions and miscellaneous expenses is more than enough to cover the cost of the game. This usually means there are more dollars to be had for those home games against a mid- or low-major opponent than if Syracuse were to play in a road game. Then there are neutral site games which are rare, but valuable, in the NET system and can be used as evidence of teams being able to win away from home (NCAA Tournament games are held at neutral sites).
In theory, Syracuse’s non-conference schedule offers baked-in challenges with a usual MTE (Maui this upcoming season) along with the ACC/SEC Challenge. Plus, a game with Georgetown (Autry has said publicly he wants to continue to series).
The jury is still out on how Syracuse will handle non-conference scheduling moving forward, but we know Autry is—at least for now—willing to schedule tough with the neutral site game against Oregon.
To some extent, the hire of Brendan Straughn answers this question. Autry has deep relational ties to the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area and with some of the best talent in the country currently coming out of the DMV, it’d be surprising if Syracuse didn’t continue to tap into and build out that pipeline.
But does Autry and the staff also consider another direction in recruiting? The Northeast prep school area has been kind to Syracuse in the past. As has the Great White North. With basketball growing north of the border, Syracuse could benefit from a natural geographic advantage. Can Syracuse continue to find hidden gems in recruiting like Kris Joseph, Tyler Ennis, Oshae Brissett and Quincy Guerrier?
And traditionally, plenty of basketball talent has come to Syracuse by way of Philadelphia and New York City — the latter where Autry and Allen Griffin are from.
Boeheim was one of the very few head coaches who employed an open locker room policy following games, meaning media was allowed into the Syracuse locker room after home and away games as opposed to selecting just one or two players to attend a press conference. After a road win at ranked Virginia in 2020, Boeheim interestingly became angry when multiple Syracuse players headed back to the team bus, forgetting about media responsibilities. Players were told to come back to the locker room for interviews.
That kind of open locker room freedom has led to stories that generate interest in the program, and just this past season allowed for stories such as this or this one on Quadir Copeland that otherwise would have gone unwritten. The importance of those stories can be debated, but they can galvanize interest from the fanbase when teams are performing well or keep fans engaged when teams underperform. Ultimately this allows fans to feel connected to the program they cheer for and can help them understand and empathize with athletes on a human level. In this way, athletes sometimes feel recognized for their contributions and for their value to the team.
You know which way we lean, but some coaches don’t always see it that way.