The last team in. March 11, 2018, Syracuse basketball fans are biting their fingernails as they anxiously wait to hear if they have been selected to play in March Madness. It was a disappointing regular season for the Orange that had seen them go 8-10 in ACC play. After losing to North Carolina in the second round of the ACC tournament, playoff hopes are dwindling. The selections are moving at the speed of molasses, only heightening the nerves of players, coaches, and fans. Moving through the teams alphabetically they finally get to the S’s, and there it is. That big orange S in all its glory. Syracuse has made the tournament once again.
Last season was filled with up and downs as the Orange played an underwhelming regular season followed by an electrifying Sweet Sixteen run. It was a Cinderella story performance for Syracuse in the tournament. This year, however, the Orange are not looking for a fairy tale. There are large expectations for the men’s basketball team, and a buzz around campus that hasn’t existed since the 2015-16 Final Four appearance.
Syracuse’s roster is much improved from last season, and they look to be one of the ACC’s top teams. The conference is looking tough this year. Seven teams—Syracuse included—made the preseason top 25 with four other ACC teams getting votes. So how does Syracuse manage to be successful in the country’s best basketball conference? The first thing you’ll hear when someone mentions the Orange is that they have all five starters returning to the lineup this season. After peering into the professional world, Shooting Guard Tyus Battle and Forward Oshae Brissett opted to give it another year before entering the draft. The return of both players has set up Syracuse with one of the deepest lineups that they have had in years. They have an unprecedented amount of weapons at the guard position, and it should help bring energy to an Orange team that had the fewest bench minutes in DI basketball last season. Syracuse brought in freshman guards Buddy Boeheim and Jalen Carey, and sophomore transfer Elijah Hughes to the roster. Additionally, backup guard Howard Washington is set to return to the lineup early this season following his ACL surgery last January. Each new addition helps the roster become more flexible than it has been in recent years. Last season the Orange played the same five guys for 35+ minutes with a substitution or two at most. The class of newcomers should allow Jim Boeheim to go nine or 10 deep on any given night. There are many key additions and important pieces to the success of the men’s basketball team. This is how the newcomers and select veterans will impact the roster this year:
Elijah Hughes, Guard/Forward: Elijah Hughes sat and watched last season as the Orange had one of their worst offensive seasons in recent memory. The East Carolina transfer put up 19 and 21 points in Syracuse’s two preseason exhibition games. He showed an ability to score from 3- point range, off the dribble, and from the free throw line. At 6’6 Hughes has the size to play shooting guard or small forward, and versatility may be his most important asset. If Hughes can play regular minutes at small forward, Jim Boeheim has the ability to push Oshae Brissett up to power forward and strengthen the offense of the Syracuse lineup. He is likely to back up Brissett at the small forward spot as well considering there is a log jam of guards on the roster. Elijah Hughes will be an important part of the team’s success this season if he can come off the bench and provide energy and scoring at multiple positions.
Jalen Carey, Guard: Every Syracuse fan was disappointed when Darius Bazley picked the G League, and then interning at New Balance, over college basketball. While Bazley was the focal point of recruiting, Jalen Carey is no scrub. Carey is an explosive guard out of Montclair, NJ—an hour north of Tyus Battle’s hometown of Edison, NJ. Carey was the fourth ranked player in the state of New Jersey—38 on the ESPN 100—and can score at both guard positions. Furthermore, his presence will allow Tyus Battle and Frank Howard to take some much needed rest. The only downside is that Carey suffered a sprained ankle in the Orange vs. White preseason scrimmage that held him out of the team’s two exhibition games. Carey is looking to return at the beginning of the regular season and add a ton of scoring off of the bench. He is a skilled playmaker and could be the heir to Tyus Battle’s throne.
Buddy Boeheim, Guard: “He just made the team because his dad is the coach.” This is the constant narrative for Buddy Boeheim. Buddy has been discredited since he announced his commitment to Syracuse, but it could not be further from the truth. This is not a case of nepotism; Buddy can play. His addition to the roster was a sneaky but effective recruitment for the Orange staff. Boeheim brings Syracuse a spot-up 3 point shooter that has been watching 2-3 zone since he could dribble a basketball. Many people forget that he is a walk-on as well. Getting a talented recruit without having to use a scholarship is incredibly rare. Buddy may not play 20-25 minutes per game, but he’ll be able to provide stretches of solid 3 point shooting that can help space out the floor for the Orange and open up driving lanes for other guards. Buddy should get a healthy amount of minutes early with Jalen Carey and Howard Washington at less than 100% to start the season.
Marek Dolezaj, Foward: If there is one guy who can make a major impact to the starting lineup it’s Marek Dolezaj. Syracuse lacked a consistent power forward going into last season and the Slovakian freshman Dolezaj was able win the job from Matthew Moyer midway through the year. Dolezaj showed flashes of playmaking ability last season, passing through zones from the top of the key. However, his play was not consistent and they could use his help on the glass more often. He averaged just 4.8 rebounds per game last season. The good news is that Dolezaj has grown over the offseason, so he may be able to be more forceful around the rim. Also, Dolezaj is continuing to learn more English as he spends time at Syracuse and that is helpful for him when communicating in the zone. Dolezaj doesn’t need to be a great scorer for Syracuse, but they need his help everywhere else. If he can improve his rebounding and defense while chipping in a couple of baskets and assists he’ll be able to play 25+ minutes per game.
Tyus Battle, Guard: As usual, Tyus Battle is the key to the offense. However, the Orange may not need to rely on Battle as much this season. He led the country last year with 39 minutes per game and often went entire games without subbing out. The freshman and transfer guard additions should give battle formidable backups that allow him to take a seat every once in a while. Nevertheless, Battle is the team’s superstar. He scored over 19 points per game last season and is expected to be one of the ACC’s top players. With less pressure to provide scoring, Battle can be more selective with his shots. He should become a more efficient shooter this season, a helpful skill for the NBA draft. Tyus Battle is the most important player on the roster this season and a deep postseason run would give him legendary status among Syracuse fans.
Oshae Brissett, Forward: Many would argue that Oshae Brissett is Syracuse’s second most important piece, behind Tyus Battle of course. As a freshman, Brissett averaged 14.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in over 38 minutes. He is a muscular 6’8 and was among the best freshman in the ACC last season. Brissett’s size and rebounding ability are going to be crucial to Syracuse on both sides of the floor this season. A major criticism of the team last year is that they were too weak and often lost the battles at the rim. Brissett is the team’s primary rebounder and may see more time at power forward than he did last season. He is a dynamic scorer who can step outside as well as go to the rim, but Syracuse may want to see him play closer to the basket at times to help provide more scoring to the offensively-challenged front court. However, Brissett shot a team-leading 33.1% from beyond the arc last season, so he’ll have the freedom to take a lot of 3’s. Oshae Brissett could see a wide range of roles this season with all the scoring that Syracuse has added. His rebounding ability may be his most valuable asset to the Orange in 2018-19.
Although the Orange have brought in a lot of strong individual talents, the key for Syracuse this season is to play as a team. There are a lot of scorers on the roster and they’ll have to share the ball amongst them if the offense is going to be successful. The scoring struggles of last year should be alleviated by the depth of the roster. As we all saw in the tournament last season, if the offense can put up half-decent numbers the 2-3 zone will deal with the rest. All the recruiting, preseason games, and Jim Boeheim-Lebron Twitter beef is over, and it is time for basketball at the Carrier Dome. The 2018-19 season should be one to remember for the men’s basketball team. The Orange open the season live on WAER at 7:00pm. Countdown to tip off begins at 6:30pm.