Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim heads to the offseason ready to recharge for yet another year, and he’s awfully satisfied with what the Orange accomplished in his 42nd year at the helm.
Despite a depleted roster that relied too heavily on three players — guards Tyus Battle and Frank Howard and freshman forward Oshae Brissett accounted for nearly three-quarters of the scoring — Syracuse made the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus and reached the Sweet 16 with three dominant defensive performances, finishing at 23-14 after losing to Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke in the round of 16.
Not bad for a roster that featured four freshmen, a redshirt freshman and two upperclassmen starting for the first time, and a bench that consisted mainly of redshirt freshman Matthew Moyer and freshman forward Bourama Sidibe.
“With this group I think that sometimes we forget that we had seven guys and one of them (Sidibe) has got a bad knee,” Boeheim said after the Orange were eliminated last Friday night by the Blue Devils. “For these guys to do what they’ve done, I think it’s an amazing thing. What these guys have accomplished I don’t think you can give them enough credit. I’m really proud of these guys. They’ve done just about everything you could hope for.
“Everybody that we played this year had a legitimate chance to play with us or beat us. We had to maximize our effort in each one of those games to win.”
And that effort relied mainly on five players — the high-scoring trio along with freshman forward Marek Dolezaj and 7-foot-2 junior center Paschal Chukwu — as the Orange coped with injuries: graduate transfer Geno Thorpe, who led South Florida in scoring the previous year, suffered a sprained ankle in preseason practice, played in just six games and left the program; the 6-10 Sidibe nursed a bad left knee for most of the season and will get it repaired in the offseason; Chukwu hurt his back in mid-February and never fully recovered; and freshman guard Howard Washington injured his right knee in practice and was lost for the season in January, though he had played sparingly.
It’s no wonder Battle and Howard were 1-2 in the nation in minutes played and Brissett tied for fourth.
“When you’re coaching a team and you have six guys, you say during the year that’s enough,” Boeheim said. “But … three guys had to play 40 minutes every game.”
Two years ago, the Orange lost star guard Malachi Richardson to the NBA after one season in college and forward Tyler Lydon opted to leave last spring after his sophomore season and also was drafted. Now, it’s Battle’s turn to decide whether Syracuse will continue its streak of having at least one player selected in the first round of the NBA draft since 2012. Battle led the team in scoring (19.2), finishing with 712 points, the highest total for a sophomore in school history and sixth highest overall. Battle also was a second-team All-ACC selection.
Boeheim said last month on his weekly radio show that he expected Battle would get evaluated by scouts at the NBA draft combine in May before making a decision about next year. Battle appeared in mock drafts off and on during the season.
Even if Battle leaves, Syracuse will be in capable hands. Howard had a pretty steady junior year at point guard (14.4 points, 175 assists, 68 steals but 126 turnovers) in his first season as a starter, Brissett is an emerging star (14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds), Chukwu showed flashes of excellence, and Dolezaj shot 53.7 percent from the field and seemed to find his niche late in the season.
The men’s basketball program is still feeling the impact of NCAA sanctions levied in 2015 for academic misconduct and extra benefits. It lost three scholarships a year for four years, through next season, but Boeheim has managed to build a nice core and has a trio of standout newcomers entering the program: 6-8 forward Darius Bazley, a five-star recruit and one of the top players in the class; shooting guard Jalen Carey, a four-star recruit; and three-star guard Buddy Boeheim, the coach’s youngest son.
Syracuse was not ranked at any point in 2017-18, the first time that’s happened to the Orange since 1981-82 and only the fourth time since Boeheim took over as head coach in 1976. Expect a return to normal next season.
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