Key Returners: Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, Oshae Brissett, Pachal Chukwu, Marek Dolezaj
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Elijah Hughes (East Carolina), Jalen Carey, Robert Braswell, Buddy Boeheim
Outlook: Old Slick Jimmy did it again last season, creeping into the NCAA Tournament after spending what felt like an eternity on the Bubble. Last year was par for the course for Boeheim and the recent versions of the Orange who have clinched just two Tourney berths in the last four seasons, both of which while bearing suspect resumes.
The 2017-18 Sweet Sixteen squad had the distinct honor of playing the least amount of bench minutes in the country, running three players nearly 95% of the total available minutes during the year. With all five starters returning from a year ago, a promising high-major transfer joining the fold, and a solid three-man recruiting class, Boeheim looks poised to have his best team since 2013-14.
By far the biggest piece of news this offseason for Cuse fans was the return of Tyus Battle, a likely first round NBA Draft pick had he opted to go pro. Battle’s return takes Cuse’s ceiling from middling ACC squad to legit conference contender. At times, Battle, a 6’6” slashing wing, was the Orange’s only source of offense on the floor, as the ’17-18 Orange were the worst offensive squad under Boeheim in the KenPom era. Syracuse employs an attack-the-rim style of offense that revolves around dribble penetration from athletic wings. Along with Battle, fellow playing time ironmen Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard relentlessly attack the basket on the offensive end, a consequence of both their impressive athletic capacity and lacking shooting ability. The Orange shot just 32% from deep as a team last season and only the three aforementioned players attempted more than 10 threes on the year.
As alluded to above, Syracuse had two glaring weaknesses last season: 1) consistent scoring and 2) depth. While nobody on the returning Cuse roster is a sharpshooter from beyond the arc, I subscribe to the theory that the lack of depth had an adverse effect on the Orange’s offense, namely shooting and shot selection. Syracuse’s offense was oftentimes inefficient due to the sheer magnitude of isolation play sets Boeheim ran. Battle ranked 25th in the country in % plays finished in isolation and Howard ranked 71st. Tired legs and a lack of viable substitution threat likely led to the Cuse guards/wings biting off a bit more than they could chew at times within the offense. With the influx of East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes and 4-star point guard Jalen Carey, Boeheim appears to have at least two more capable options to turn to in 2018-19.
Hughes fits the recent prototypical Cuse player mold with his athletic 6’6” frame, affinity for scoring off the bounce, and allergy to making a high percentage of his outside shots. He’ll bolster an already stout defense (more on that in a bit) and adds yet another dribble-drive threat to the offense. Carey, the 36th ranked prospect in the 2018 class per ESPN, looks to be the point guard of the future. Like the other members of the Orange backcourt, Carey is long, strong, and can score off the bounce. He, too, has potential shooting issues, but he should be a more reliable point option than Howard who has been plagued by turnover issues throughout his career. A shift off the ball could do wonders for Howard’s historically low offensive efficiency.
Up front, Boeheim brings back shot-blocking extraordinaire Pacshal Chukwu and promising sophomore Marek Dolezaj, each of whom were proficient on the offensive end and on the glass last season. Look for freshman Robert Braswell to get a crack at the frontcourt rotation eventually alongside returning sophomore Bourama Sidibe. Braswell has a similar build and game as Brissett – he’s more of a wing than a power forward, can space the floor a bit, and should be an asset on the defensive side of the ball. The coach’s kid, Buddy Boeheim, likely won’t see much of the floor in his inaugural walk-on season, but he is the best shooter on the roster and could see the hardwood if situations become dire.
In stark contrast to the Orange’s offensive struggles, their defense was the best ever under Boeheim in the KenPom era, ranking 5th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. Of course, Cuse runs its patented 2-3 zone that, with a bevy of long-armed defenders all over the floor, functions more as a wall of steel thorny thickets than it does a defense. The Orange ranked 10th in the country in effective FG% defense, a function of the athletic makeup of the roster and the anchor, Chukwu, in the paint. Even when the zone breaks down (which it doesn’t do often), Syracuse has a safety valve in Chukwu, a 7’2” senior that ranked 10th in the country in block rate last season:
Newcomers Carey and Hughes will only make this side of the ball more fierce and impenetrable.
As with many teams coming off of late-season runs, we run the risk of overrating Syracuse heading into the season. I’ve seen the Orange crack top 15s in some publications’ early rankings which seems a bit of stretch at this juncture given last year’s offensive struggles. Though Cuse made the Sweet 16, it finished 41st in KenPom’s overall rankings, 35th in Haslametrics, and 41st in Bart Torvik’s T-Rank. However, if the offense improves with the maturation of Battle, Brissett, and Howard and the added depth provided by Carey and Hughes, the Orange could very much reach and/or exceed those lofty top-15 expectations. This could be the best defensive team in the country in 2018-19 and that, combined with a controlled tempo, will make Cuse a very hard team to beat this season.