In: C Fab Melo (Fr.), G Dion Waiters (Fr.), F Baye Moussa Keita (Fr.), F C.J. Fair (Fr.)
Out: F Wes Johnson, G Andy Rautins, C Arinze Onuaku
Syracuse's theme this season, as announced in their words as practice opened and on T-shirts at its Midnight Madness, is "Unfinished Business.'' The Orange were certain that they were a Final Four team last season, but lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual national runner-up Butler. They're absolutely convinced that they should set their sights just as high now as they did a year ago, when they were picked to finish sixth in the Big East but were ranked No. 1 in the country going into the final weekend of the regular season.
This season the coaches picked Syracuse third in the conference, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have the goods to be among the last teams playing the weekend before the big gathering in Houston. Technically only two starters return, forward Rick Jackson (the only senior) and guard Brandon Triche, but point guard Scoop Jardine was embedded in their three-guard rotation and played starter-level minutes, and he'll start now. So will reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year Kris Joseph, a junior forward who also moves into the starting lineup and has been favorably compared to one of the departed from last year, conference player of the year Wes Johnson. Also expect increased minutes by sophomore small forward Mookie Jones, who wasn't part of coach Jim Boeheim's tight rotation.
Oh, and expect all four freshman, Melo (pictured above right) and his classmates, to get a chance to play a lot. They'll have to now that sophomore DaShonte Riley, the other seven-footer on the roster, likely will miss the season with a broken foot. Boeheim plans to use the depth he didn't use last season, and he plans to use it as he has for 35 years, in his inscrutable matchup zone and in his share-the-wealth offense Johnson, capable of going for 30 any night, took fewer than 12 shots a game; Joseph, equally capable of scoring explosions, is similarly unselfish.
Considering they're easily top-three in the Big East in talent, depth, versatility and potential, placing them third in the league might be selling Syracuse short.
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Question to answer: Can this team shrug off the loss of key players from last season as well as last season's team did with its key losses? The lament going into that year, which turned into the Orange's winningest regular season ever, was if they could survive losing Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. With this group, there's little reason Boeheim can't do it again.
Best-case scenario: This Syracuse team is entitled to envision the Final Four. The big potential roadblock might be a shortage in an area believed critical to such a run: senior guards. But Jardine, a redshirt junior, and the sophomore Triche both play above their years. And freshman aren't necessarily an impediment to a long postseason, as Kentucky proved.
Worst-case scenario: Nothing is guaranteed once the actual bracket is set. And back-to-back Sweet 16 trips don't protect you from a first-round upset. It shouldn't happen, but underachieve even slightly and land in the wrong matchup in a
distant region, and it could all go up in smoke.
FanHouse prediction: The Final Four is actually too much to ask, but the Sweet 16 is easily in reach, and the Elite Eight is not a pipe dream.