Catching up with ‘Cuse Men’s Basketball: An Abrupt Season End & Hopes for Future

Sep 7, 2020

Elijah Hughes played in the last basketball game of SU's 2019-20 season, which was ended abruptly by the COVID pandemic shutdown.
Credit Cuse.com

81-53: that is how Syracuse ended the basketball season. SU convincingly beat North Carolina in the ACC tournament, albeit not exactly the usual UNC given their struggles last year. The regular season was largely disappointing for the Orange, but a victory over the Tarheels reinvigorated hope that SU could pull off a miracle ACC tournament title-run and dance to March Madness. Although the miracle almost surely would not have happened, we never got to find out because – that same day – Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus and the sports world came to a screeching halt.

Welcome to Catching up with ‘Cuse Men’s Basketball. This is the second of a trio of articles that help SU football, men’s basketball, and men’s lacrosse fans catch up on everything they need to know from the last five months. 

Potential Pro Departure:

After leading the ACC with 19 points per game, Elijah Hughes is off to the pros. Popular mock draft website nbadraft.net projects the wing will get picked 30th overall by the Boston Celtics (subject to change over the next few months). Sports Illustrated recently released a mock draft in which Hughes was selected 53rd by the Oklahoma City Thunder. After transferring from East Carolina as a sophomore, the question is most likely when – not if – Hughes will get taken in the NBA draft.

Orange in the Bubble:

The NBA’s Orlando bubble is commanding the attention of much of the sports world as fans look on in fascination at the Disney World spectacle. Inside the bubble, a few former Syracuse players have put on quite a show.

Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony turned back the clock with a first round playoff matchup against fellow 2003 draftee LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Melo rode into the playoffs on a hot streak scoring 16.5 points per game on 47% three-point shooting in the eight-game regular season restart. The former national champion stayed hot in the playoffs, averaging over 15 points per game while shooting 42% from deep in Portland's first round defeat. Considering the ups-and-downs of the last two years of Melo's career, it is plausible that we may have watched his final NBA game, but a 2021 return seems likely.

On the other side of that first round matchup, Los Angeles Lakers guard Dion Waiters had a strong start to the bubble after a tumultuous regular season. Waiters reached double-digit points in six of the eight regular season games. However, the wing only saw the floor for 30 minutes in LA’s five-game series victory over Portland. Waiters has chipped in just two points through the first two games of the second round. Houston and Los Angeles are tied at one win apiece.

Sticking in the West, Denver forward Jerami Grant has taken on a larger scoring load since arriving in Orlando. Grant has scored 18 or more points in five of the seven regular season games in the bubble after averaging 12 points per game in the regular season. The forward has slowed down offensively in the postseason (10.7 points per game), but was a key player in the Nuggets first-round comeback. Denver trailed Utah three games to one before they won the series in seven.

In the second round, Grant has made his largest contribution on the defensive end. The former second-round pick held Clippers star Kawhi Leonard to just 13 points and four field goals on 17 shot attempts. That is only the second time this season the 2019 Finals MVP scored under 14 points and registered over 30 minutes of playing time in the same game. Denver and LA have split the first two matchups of the second-round series.

In the Eastern Conference, former NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and the Magic were eliminated in five games by the Bucks in round one. Carter-Williams spent most of his time in Disney World on the shelf. The former Orange star did not play after Orlando’s third game in the bubble because of a tendon injury he suffered in his left foot. Carter-Williams' teams have been eliminated in the first round in each of the four seasons he has made playoffs.

Recruitment News:

Syracuse got busy in June snagging two commits, one in each of the next two classes. In the 2020 class, Prolific Prep center Frank Anselem committed to Syracuse on June 4. Anselem is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and is likely to play behind Marek Dolezaj, Bourama Sidibe, and Jesse Edwards this season.

Anselem stands 6’10” and 220 pounds, tied with Quincy Guerrier for the heaviest on the team. The center turned down offers from Kansas, Tennessee, and Arizona, among others. Anselem is very athletic and has the potential to be a strong defensive player. The Georgian’s offensive skill set is his biggest area for improvement right now.

In the 2021 class, Syracuse made a major pickup with the commitment of four-star forward Benny Williams. The IMG Academy senior is the 51st recruit on the ESPN 100 for 2021 (subject to change over the next year). Williams is listed as a power forward by ESPN, but he looks more like a small forward, or even a tall shooting guard, on tape. At 6’8”, the Maryland native possesses elite length and impressive ball skills. If he continues to stretch out his outside shooting and continues to add bulk, Williams could be the focal point of SU men's basketball in the future.

Newcomers:

Other than Frank Anselem, Syracuse has two freshmen joining the roster this season: Kadary Richmond and Woody Newton.

Richmond is a large wing from Brooklyn that can command an offense and score inside. The 6’5” shooting guard is a four-star recruit per ESPN and slips in near the end of the 2020 ESPN 100 at 91. Richmond received offers from Oregon, Texas, and Seton Hall.

Over the summer, Richmond has received high acclaim from the media. CBS Sports reporter Jon Rothstein tweeted in mid-August that “deeply entrenched confidants in Upstate New York are raving about Syracuse freshman Kadary Richmond.”

Woody Newton is a stretch forward who turned down offers from Georgetown, Kansas State, and Virginia Tech when he committed to Syracuse last year. Newton is 6’8” with three-point shooting ability and quick feet. If his frame fills out, the wing could become a prominent scorer for SU.

ESPN National Recruiting Director Paul Biancardi spoke with WAER Sports’ Ostrom Avenue Podcast about the incoming recruits:

Schedule Up in the Air:

With the everchanging COVID-situation, the state of the upcoming season is in question. The ACC is proceeding with fall sports for now, but there is no guarantee basketball will be played in 2020. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has voiced his opinion on the situation in an interview with College Sports on SiriusXM

“I just don’t see why we don’t push forward like all the other sports,” Boeheim said. “Because in my mind this could go on for two years, or three years. Are we just going to stop everything?”

Biggest Questions Heading into 2020-21:

The focus of the offseason for Jim Boeheim’s staff has undoubtedly been replacing the workload that Elijah Hughes left behind when he declared for the NBA draft. Hughes averaged an ACC-best 19 points per game and led the conference in minutes (1,175) last year.

Returning Orange Guard Joe Girard III will be counted in for increased production and leadership in the 2020-21 version of the squad
Credit Cuse.com

  Some of the shots will certainly go to the skilled backcourt of Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard III. Boeheim led the ACC in three-point field goal percentage (37%) in 2019. JG3 finished top ten in the conference in three-point field goals made (70) and assists (113) as a freshman.

Another boost came recently when former Illinois wing Alan Griffin had his transfer waiver approved. The son of former NBA player Adrian Griffin is now eligible to play this year for SU. Griffin averaged nearly nine points in just 18 minutes per game last season as a sophomore. The Ossining, New York native adds yet another three-point threat to the roster. Griffin shot nearly 42% from three-point range in his final season at Illinois.

There is a serious log jam at the wing position considering Quincy Guerrier is the next man up to take on more responsibility in the upcoming campaign. The French-Canadian recently spoke with The Athletic about breaking out this season, as well as playing with injuries last year that prevented him from flourishing as a freshman.

If Guerrier can refine his offensive skills, he has the potential to start for this Orange team. Syracuse has had trouble with defensive rebounding in recent years (25.3 defensive rebounds per game, tied for 10th in the ACC last season), an area in which the forward can help. Guerrier grabbed 5.3 rebounds per game last season while averaging just over 20 minutes per contest.

Should Griffin or Guerrier slide into the starting lineup, one of Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe could lose the spots in the frontcourt they held last season. The ceiling is high for the Orange with the potential of Griffin and/or Guerrier breaking out, but the floor is also quite low if no one can step into Hughes’ shoes.

Social Justice:

Since the Orange arrived on campus in early July, social justice and racial equality has been at the top of the players’ agenda. Just two days after Syracuse touched down in the Salt City, head coach Jim Boeheim released a video regarding the current state of racial relations in the United States. Jim Boeheim added the caption “NO XCUSE” to the video posted on his personal twitter. 

The video alternates between a member of the SU coaching staff saying “no excuse,” and then a player responding to complete the sentence. Players of different ages, nationalities, and races stood together and said things like “[no excuse] not to learn,” (expressed by sophomore Quincy Guerrier) or “[no excuse] for racism” (said by redshirt-freshman John Bol Ajak). 

The tweet ends with former Syracuse standout Carmelo Anthony putting his right fist up in the air and proclaiming “black lives matter.” Melo has been involved in social justice work in the past (most notably the 2016 ESPYs) and collaborated with Coach Boeheim to make the video a reality. Assistant coaches Adrian Autry, Gerry McNamara, and Allen Griffin featured in the video as well. The other players involved were Bourama Sidibe, Joe Girard III, Buddy Boeheim and Marek Dolezaj.

Head coach Jim Boeheim has shown his commitment to people of color through actions as well as words. On August 28, Boeheim announced his commitment to the McLendon Foundation Minority Leadership Initiative. The McLendon Foundation says on its website that it aims “to provide minorities a jump-start to their careers through practical experiences, opportunities to build their network opportunities, and instilling the values of John McLendon: Integrity, Education, Leadership, and Mentorship.” Boeheim joins prominent college basketball coaches John Calipari (Kentucky), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), and Tony Bennett (Virginia) in the McLendon Foundation.

Leadership has not been the only driving force for change, however. Because of his recently-awarded transfer waiver, Alan Griffin held a press conference in late August. The Illinois transfer kept the press conference focused on race relations, rather than his eligibility and the upcoming basketball season. “[Social justice] is really what I want to talk about today,” said Griffin. “I want to use my platform and voice to speak about what is going on in today’s world because it’s not right.”

The Ossining, New York native spent the entire 21-minute Zoom session discussing social justice issues. “We all want to see change,” said Griffin. “[The team] has talked about ways we can make an impact and make change.”