There’s no getting around this: in the closing years of the Boeheim Era, by far the most consequential era of Syracuse basketball, the program is not what it used to be.
In his first ACC season, Jim Boeheim guided Syracuse to a 28-6 record and started that season off hot as hell, going undefeated until February 19th. A lot of that was because Tyler Ennis was a brilliant point guard, but he left after his freshman year. Boeheim bluntly said it was a mistake and he was right: Ennis was out of the league in a few short years and has been playing overseas, most recently for Tofaş S.K. in Turkey.
Since then, Syracuse has, honestly, been a disappointment, finishing 18-13, 19-9, 19-15, 23-14, 20-14, 18-10 and last year, 16-17. That’s a record of 151-92.
As always, we say give everyone a pass on the Covid year (18-14), but that said, the drop off is pretty obvious.
Boeheim is pushing 80 - he’ll be 78 in November - which means he’s getting close to Joe Paterno territory (the late Penn State coach was forced out at 84 after the notorious Jerry Sandusky scandal).
Paterno was clearly in deep decline and while many remain deeply loyal to JoePa, no one seriously disputes that he stayed on too long.
Boeheim is obviously still sharp. He’s nowhere near Paterno’s decline. He looks far younger than 77 and seems like he could live a long time yet.
He is past his prime though. Can he turn it around this season? Well, let’s look.
He loses a lot from that 16-17 team. Frank Anselem, who was publicly mocked by his coach, won't return. Bourama Sibide is done too. Cole Swider, who finally turned it up at the end of the year, is gone, as are both Boeheims. Jimmy only had the transfer year but Buddy put in four years for the old man and became a really, really good player.
They could be an extremely dangerous trio as any one of them might heat up and shoot their opponent right out of the game. Duke experienced this in the ACC Tournament as the Orange took the Blue Devils nearly to the wire before Duke finished with a 10-0 run in the last 3:32.
Boeheim has always used the 2-3 zone. The problem in recent years is that he has lacked a stopper inside and the long-armed defenders that made it so difficult to pass around, much less to get the ball inside.
This year, if he stays healthy, Boeheim has Jesse Edwards to man the post. The 6-11 senior showed great improvement last year but went out in early February with a wrist injury and there wasn’t really a Plan B. Anselem is probably a great kid but he wasn’t ready to start. Neither was John Bol Ajak and he’s not likely to be much better this year. It was a real problem. Incidentally, Ajak attended Westtown School, the same school that produced Duke’s Cam Reddish and Dereck Lively.
Expect Edwards to be solid. He did have a problem with fouls early last year, fouling out of nine of Syracuse’s first 16 games, but he got better before his injury.
He’ll most likely be backed up by 6-11 Dartmouth transfer Mounir Hima, who played at St. Benedict's, the same high school that sent Ennis and Sibide to Syracuse. Hima has a 7-8 wingspan which will be a great fit with Boeheim’s 2-3.
Joe Girard, who had an incredible high school career, setting a New York State record with 4,763 points, will likely move over to shooting guard and he surely hasn’t forgotten how to let it fly. He’s had modest success at SU but could have a big year if he gets to focus on his strong point.
It’s hard to say.
Sammir Torrence might start at point but he’s more likely to be a backup. Niko Ruffin is small at 5-10 but could get some minutes. Benny Williams. a 6-8 sophomore, might start at forward. But the freshman class is promising and it may be hard to keep some of them out of the starting lineup.
Maliq Brown (6-8) is a guy you’ll want to keep an eye on. He was seen as a three-star recruit but he’s a very good athlete and a guy who is willing to do a lot of the dirty work. He’s very team oriented and doesn’t mind playing defense. He was also a promising quarterback before he focused on basketball.
Covid meant that he probably didn’t get the attention he deserved. We’ll see how he does but he should be a factor this season. We’re really excited to see him. He could be a major surprise.
Brown is from Culpepper but played at Blue Ridge. Fellow recruit and fellow Virginian Justin Taylor brought him to SU’s attention.
Taylor is from Charlottesville which means that UVA knew all about him. UNC wanted him too. He’s 6-6, also fairly athletic, and has a nice stroke. He should get some minutes this year and might excel. He finished up at IMG Academy.
Like Taylor, Quadir Copeland finished high school at IMG. A 6-6 guard who may end up at point for SU eventually, Copeland is going to be a factor. For one thing, he gives Syracuse another tall defender to plug into that damn 2-3 zone. He’s a penetrator too. Expect him to get minutes.
California native Chris Bunch is 6-7 and a wispy 180. He’s quick and can shoot the three, but may need to bulk up before he’s a major factor. Then again, there’s always Reggie Miller, who never bulked up, and really wasn’t able to, and still had a spectacular 18-year NBA career. Bunch might be a surprise and if he can hit threes consistently, Boeheim will find a way to let him do that.
At 6-11 and 200 lbs, Peter Carey is also thin, but he’ll be able to come off the bench this season and work on his game and body. He has potential but we probably won't see much of it this year.
Finally, 6-3 Judah Mintz, probably the best in the class. Mintz is a point guard and may step in immediately ahead of Torrence. He’s strong and can slash and distribute. No doubt Girard will be happy to see him. Even if he doesn't start he’s likely to be a major factor.
A lot depends on these freshmen, but here’s the thing: they don’t all have to be great right now. If they can get solid play out of Mintz and contributions from some combination of Taylor, Copeland, Bunch and Brown, the rotation could be pretty good. For the first time in awhile, Boeheim has the long-armed defenders he needs to really make the zone work. The catch is that most of them are young and the zone is fairly subtle. It’s a lot more aggressive than most people think.
We don’t know what the ceiling is for this team, but it should do better than last year’s 16-17 season. It could be the most talent Boeheim has had in several years. And as we saw in 2015-16, Boeheim’s zone gives even an average team a puncher’s chance. At a minimum, this is going to be a dangerous group. If things go very well, Syracuse could have a wonderful year and provide Boeheim an opportunity to go out with a bang if he chooses.