Attrition way-lowed two previous national title runs in recent years, and it appears it might sabotage this year's quest as well. The news the other day that freshman center/forward Dajuan Coleman will be out at least a month after minor knee surgery coupled with the continued ineligibility of James Southerland has the Syracuse Orange down to just seven scholarship players.
These personnel losses conjure painful reminders of the 2010 leg injury that ended center Arinze Onuaku's season and SU's legitimate shot at a second NCAA basketball championship. And they also revive memories of last season when center Fab Melo's ineligibility at the start of the NCAA tournament killed any hopes of the Orange battling Kentucky for the crown.
The absence of Southerland (still no word if this issue will be resolved this season) and Coleman mean several younger players will need to start living up to their potential and take some of the burden off the Cuse's most dependable trio - Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. Fair and Brandon Triche.
As the sixth-ranked, 18-2 Orange men enter the teeth of the Big East schedule, the spotlight will shine more brightly on sophomore center Rakeem Christmas, freshman forward Jerami Grant and red-shirt freshman guard Trevor Cooney. How well they respond will determine whether this team goes quickly or far in this year's NCAAs.
Let's put the loss of Coleman into perspective. Yes, he started every game and had decent stats - five points, 4.3 rebounds in 13.9 minutes per game. But Jim Boeheim often pulled him quickly and didn't use the big guy much during crunch time, including during last Saturday's overtime loss to Villanova after Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita had fouled out. Still, on a team lacking in depth and size, the wide-bodied Coleman ate up some minutes and threw his weight around out there, and occasionally made some solid contributions.
His absence will mean more playing time for Christmas, a talented player who has been consistently inconsistent, and occasionally foul-prone. He's averaging 6.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and two blocks in 22 minutes per game. He has split time with the less-talented, but always hustling Keita. Christmas had some bright moments filling in during Melo's first suspension midway through last season. It would be very beneficial to this year's squad if he could take that a step further in the coming weeks.
Grant may be the most athletically gifted player on the roster, but he's still quite raw. He's averaging 5.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 14.9 minutes. Look for his playing time to go up substantially. Clearly Boeheim would have liked to have eased Grant in, but without Southerland and Coleman at his disposal, the Hall of Fame coach has little choice but to use his star freshman more frequently. Grant clearly has much to learn about the college game - he committed a few foolish fouls while fouling out of the Nova game - but the kid has extraordinary talent. I could see him being a major contributor down the stretch. He could be very, very good before his SU career is all said and done.
Cooney was supposed to be a bigger version of Gerry McNamara. But, to date, he hasn't shown much. Without Southerland to fill it up from the outside, Cooney's marksmanship from beyond the 3-point arc is going to be a necessity. But he has developed a bad case of the shooter's yips and is hitting just 29 percent of his treys. And the most disconcerting thing is that he is air-balling wide-open shots. He needs to loosen up because he has to become this team's primary outside threat.
Of course, an even greater onus will fall upon Carter-Williams, Fair and Triche. But as we've seen with MCW in particular, there is a danger of a player getting out of control and making too many unforced errors when he tries to do too much or - worse - it all by himself.
This club clearly isn't as deep as previous SU teams. So, it will be interesting to see how their "Big Three" and "Little Three" respond during a stretch that sees the Orange play five Big East teams with a combined record of 72-28 in the next two weeks.
Scott Pitoniak has followed Syracuse basketball since the mid-1960s and covered the Orange since the mid-1970s. He is the author of "Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story" which is available in bookstores and at www.amazon.com.
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