The date is Friday, November 9th. The time, 7:00 PM. The place, the flight deck of the USS Midway. It's there that that Syracuse Orange will open the season against the San Diego St. Aztecs in the "Battle on the Midway".
In the super early preview, we learned that this game isn't the typical season opener for Syracuse. Where normally the Orange are opening with the likes of Fordham or Albany, Steve Fisher's Aztecs are a downright scary first opponent, ranked 20th in the AP preseason poll. And while Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim prefers to remain in the familiar confines of the Carrier Dome as much as possible, he takes his team 3000 miles or so southwest into the Aztecs' back yard. If there's a tougher opening game among the top ten, I'd like to hear about it.
The Aztecs and the Orange couldn't be any more different in how they arrived at the start of the 2012 season. Syracuse lost four key players to the NBA draft and graduation. Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters and Fabricio Melo all played integral roles in Syracuse's fantastic 2011-12 season. Their replacements, while more than capable, are largely untested when it comes to being relied upon for leadership and production.
On the other hand, San Diego State, brings back four starters from a team that was second in the Mountain West Conference and a #6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Among them is the 2012 MWC player of the year. They have all tasted success and know exactly what it takes to win big games like this one. Let's take a look at each position to see if there are any clues on which way this might go.
MW Rankings: 1st in scoring, 3rd in defensive rebounds, 4th in rebounding, 4th in free-throw percentage, 6th in field-goal percentage, 9th in offensive rebounds, 10th in blocked shots
Bottom line is that Franklin can play. His 17.8 PPG and 7.9 RPG led the team. Hell, he even led the team in blocks (0.6 BPG). What's more, he averaged 6.3 FT attempts last season, versus just 4.9 3PT attempts. Franklin is a savvy player who knows how to use his 6'5", 205 frame to get into the lane and wreak havoc. Think San Diego State's Dion Waiters.
Franklin leads a three guard attack that also includes senior Chase Tapley and junior Xavier Thames. Tapley was second on the team in scoring (15.8 PPG) and led the Aztecs in 3PT% (43.3%) while Thames played a more pure-point guard role, averaging 10.1 PPG, 4.1 APG and 2.5 TOPG. With Franklin attacking, Tapley launching threes and Thames dishing, the Orange zone is going to have its hands full.
Syracuse, though, has its own trio of talented back court players deployed in a more tradition 2-guard line up. Senior Brandon Triche and sophomore Michael Carter-Williams will, by all accounts, be the starters. There is some debate as to who will play what role. Some think Triche will assume the role of floor general, eschewing scoring for chances to set up teammates and direct the offense while MCW will use his not inconsiderable talents to focus on making buckets. Others expect McDubz to take over his role as point guard of the future, while Triche continues to play the off-guard spot as he has the last couple of seasons. Both are versatile enough that it's likely to be a little of both, especially when red-shirt freshman Trevor Cooney is on the floor. The final member of Syracuse's back court rotation has a well rounded game, but is at his best as a long range shooter. Chances are that he'll play the 2-guard exclusively while Triche or McDubz plays the point.
The Syracuse guards have the talent to match their counterparts from San Diego State, even if the numbers don't show it. Triche averaged a mere 9.4 PPG, MCW 2.4 in very limited action and Cooney logged not a regular season minute at all thanks to the red-shirt year. There's cause for concern where experience is involved. Where Triche has started every game of his SU career, MCW and Cooney have none. On the other side, Franklin, Tapley and Thames are all seasoned veterans. So, while the Orange might outsize the Aztecs at every turn, San Diego St. has the clear advantage when it comes to experience. If this game were in the NCAA tournament, that might not be so big a deal. But for a season opener, it's a huge edge, especially for primary ball handlers and play makers.
If the edge in experience goes to San Diego State in the back court, if definitely goes to the Orange for the forward spots. The Aztecs count three freshmen, three sophomores and one senior among their forwards. The lone upper classman, DeShawn Stephens, is the only player listed as a forward for the 2012 season to have played meaningful minutes for Steve Fisher last year. For Syracuse, on the other hand, sophomore C.J. Fair, played in every game for the Orange last season, averaging 26.4 minutes a contest. And that's after averaging over 18 MPG in 32 games played as a true freshman. Not only does Fair have the minutes played, but the production to boot. Fair wasn't even really a secondary player his first two seasons. He was more an afterthought, a garbage man. Despite being far from a focus, he's still averaged 7.5 PPG and 4.7 RPG. And he's had some of his best outings in big games. In a career-high 37 minutes against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, C.J. had fifteen points, seven boards and four steals. That kind of production when it matters is what the Orange need from him this season, starting on the Midway.
Unlike the Aztecs, the Orange have more than one forward whose seen the floor in a college game Fair is joined by senior James Southerland, who also played in every game for the Orange last season. Baye Keita, though used primarily for spot duty, has seen the floor often as well. Syracuse isn't without its share of fresh front court faces either. True freshmen Jerami Grant and DaJuan Coleman join Boeheim's squad this season (though Coleman is more likely to play the center spot. More on that later). Still, both are likely to be used sparingly as the veterans get the lion's share of the minutes.
If greater experience gives the Syracuse front court any edge, the size advantage puts the Orange over the top. In truth, the Orange outsize the Aztecs all over the court. That advantage, though, is more important on the front lines where shots are challenged and rebounds are won. San Diego state's three guard lineup is going to force one of them to guard either Fair or Southerland, both of whom measure in at 6'8". Baye Keita is 6'10". On the other side, the Syracuse 2-3 will limit the need for the Orange forwards to have to defend the opposing guards one-one-one. The size advantage for Syracuse is a huge one in this game, but it's not like they haven't had that before and struggled. It's up to them to exploit that mismatch.
The Orange hold the advantage when it comes to centers simply by virtue of the fact that the Aztecs have none. Sure, they're going to have a big man on the floor and the most likely candidate from a flat-out size perspective is 6'9" freshman Skylar Spencer. Even then, it's far more likely that the previously mentioned Stephenson plays the role of the lone big man while wing players like J.J. O'Brien or
When it comes to centers, we end up sort of where we started. The Aztecs have the clear experience advantage in the back court, size and experience go to the Orange forwards and just flat out-size goes to the Syracuse centers. The Orange will be young in the middle. Sophomore Rakeem Christmas started every game for the Orange and averaged just under 12 MPG, but those numbers are skewed by a ton of playing time in the early season and then again during the NCAA tournament where he filled in admirably for the suspended Fab Melo. In truth, Rak was largely absent during the meat of Syracuse's 2011 season, sometimes being pulled from the game less than a minute after tip-off.
Backing up Christmas will likely be true freshman DaJuan Coleman, a local product and former high school teammate of Brandon Triche. What Coleman lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in sheer size. At 6'9" and 288 lbs, he's a load inside and a certified monster on the boards. And even though Christmas weighs in a good 45 pounds less than Coleman, both are bigger than anyone else who will take the court on the Midway. Baye Keita is the only player on Syracuse's roster listed as a center and can expect to see time in the middle as well. He's not a girthy as his mates in the middle, but he has the length and energy to be a nuisance.
The bottom line is that Syracuse is young and raw but BIG. Just as the experience advantage for San Diego State is of greater import for the guards, the size advantage on the front line for Syracuse is just as important. The Aztec front court might be more prolific, but Syracuse's size could unnerve them. There should never be a player shorter than 6'8" on the back line of the Syracuse zone, and most of them long ans rangy to boot. It's a match up nightmare for Steve Fisher on both ends of the floor. The Aztecs don't have anyone who should be able to guard the likes of C.J. and Jim Boeheim's patented 2-3 zone is likely to close off most of the lanes players like Franklin and Thames rely on. In the end, though, it comes down to who plays well. Which team's leaders perform. Which team is ready for a tough season opening test and which still has work to do. We'll find out on November 9th...on an aircraft carrier.
Check out Bleeding Orange, it's just like TNIAAM, only not as good and without the pretty pictures.