Fordham-Syracuse Preview

BY foxsports • November 11, 2011

Jim Boeheim says he really doesn't pay attention to the rankings. If true, rest assured he's in a distinct minority around here as Syracuse gets ready for what promises to be another season of promise.

Coming off a 27-8 campaign and with only one player lost to graduation, the Orange are ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason Top 25 as the season gets underway Saturday against Fordham at the Carrier Dome. It's the highest Syracuse has been ranked before the season since it was No. 3 in 1989-90.

That national high regard is due to talent - and experience. Boeheim gave 10 players good chunks of playing time last season - all but one are back - and he has three impressive freshmen in the fold.

"Coming off a successful year, you have a lot of guys back, your ranking's going to be pretty good," said Boeheim, who begins his 36th year as head coach with 856 wins. "That's fine. It should be. We've had good depth the last couple of years. I think this year we probably have the opportunity to have the most depth that we've ever had."

The roster has a pair of veterans who have seen just about everything. This will be the fifth year for guard Scoop Jardine, who received his undergraduate degree in May, and it's the swan song for forward Kris Joseph, too.

"They have had two good years in a row," Boeheim said. "Both guys played tremendously two years ago and they had really good years last year. That leads to expectations for them to have very good years this year."

Joseph led Syracuse in scoring, averaging 14.3 points, and became a steady outside threat, shooting 45 of 123 (36.6 percent) from beyond the arc in 2010-11. Although he didn't take part in full-court drills early in preseason practice because of some swelling in his right knee, it's good to go as is the left after an offseason procedure to treat the tendinitis that plagued him last year.

"Motivation is so high. We know what we're capable of," said Joseph, who has added 10 pounds of muscle. "We know what people expect of us. We know we can exceed them if we all do the right things."

Jardine is ready for the task of finally fulfilling the hopes of preseason. The Orange have been bounced early from the NCAA tournament two straight times, two years ago by Butler and last year by Big East-foe Marquette.

This year won't be easy, either. Amid the lofty expectations, Syracuse will also encounter critics along the way, those disappointed that the Orange will soon leave the Big East for the ACC.

Clearly, Jardine will need to be a leader when things get tough.

"The most important thing I want to do with this team is to be a consistent leader in practice, off the court and on the court," said Jardine, who averaged 12.5 points and 5.8 assists last season but had 100 turnovers in his first year as the starting point guard. "That's the thing that is going to help this team. That's the thing I think we're missing - a great leader.

"We need to continue to leave our egos at the door, to sacrifice for the big goal, and that's winning a championship."

Guard Brandon Triche, who has started every game of his college career, returns for his junior season. He was fourth in scoring at 11 points per game and led the team in free-throw shooting at 84.2 percent (80 of 95). Syracuse's outstanding freshman class includes shooting guards Michael Carter-Williams and Trevor Cooney, and expect them to get floor time.

"We like our guys," Boeheim said. "We think they can contribute."

Syracuse had a great leader last year in Rick Jackson, but he's that lone player who graduated - and he left some big shoes to fill.

Jackson averaged 13.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, a team-high 35.6 minutes, and also blocked 86 shots in rotating between power forward and center. He led by example more than anything, and Joseph does, too.

"The intensity level and competition level is out of this world," Joseph said. "It can't do anything but help us. I don't like to count my chickens before they're hatched, but we look really good."

Counted on to help fill the void left by Jackson are the Orange's young centers - 7-foot Fab Melo and 6-10 Baye Moussa Keita. Both are sophomores now, and Melo has dropped 18 pounds since spring, thanks in part to playing 18 games in 25 days in the summer for Brazil at the World University Games. Keita, meanwhile, has added a couple of pounds to his wiry frame and is healthy again after offseason surgery to correct a sprained ligament on the base of his left hand.

The injury hampered Keita much of his rookie season, but the two big men logged meaningful minutes. They'll be joined by 6-8 freshman Rakeem Christmas, who gives Boeheim an unusual amount of depth in the middle of the Orange's 2-3 zone defense. That will be welcome without Jackson's presence.

Forward C.J. Fair and guard Dion Waiters have a year of experience, too, after displaying flashes of brilliance as rookies in the tough Big East. Veterans James Southerland and Mookie Jones add to the depth.

Just like the previous year, last season ended much sooner than expected. That team's mantra - "Unfinished Business" - might as well be recycled.

"The thing about the NCAA tournament when you lose, there's no, `Let's get them back next week.' You have to bite that bullet," Joseph said. "We've gotten past it. It was definitely hard the few weeks after, but you have to move on."

Fordham will face an uphill climb in its opener as it tries to avoid a fourth consecutive season with 20 or more losses. Tom Pecora led the Rams to a 7-21 record in his first season in 2010-11 - a poor record on its face but also a five-game improvement from the previous year.

Pecora's team will be led once again by junior forward Chris Gaston, who averaged 15.9 points and 11.3 rebounds last year and led Atlantic 10 players with 17 double-doubles.

Syracuse holds a 26-16 edge in the all-time series against Fordham, including an 80-63 victory at the Carrier Dome in the most recent meeting Nov. 16, 2007.

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