The Syracuse University basketball team’s move from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference has many fans understandably yearning for the days of Pearl Washington’s buzzer-beater, John Thompson’s towel and G-Mac’s heroics at the Big East Tournament.
But don’t waste too much time pining for the past, because these, my friends, are the good old days.
The Orange has posted back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in program history, is coming off its fifth Final Four appearance and is led by a Hall of Fame coach with 920 career wins. The Orange lost Brandon Triche, James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams from last year’s team, but Coach Jim Boeheim returns ACC Preseason Player of the Year C.J. Fair and added what was ranked as a top-12 recruiting class led by point guard Tyler Ennis.
As the Orange prepares to open its regular season against Cornell on Friday, Nov. 8, 7 p.m., at the Carrier Dome, here’s a “Starting Five” list of reasons to keep your expectations high and to embrace SU’s move from the Big East:
1. Oh, Canada!
Thanks to four exhibition games in Canada in August and new NCAA rules allowing teams to start preseason workouts earlier, the Orange had about 25 extra practices and games in the summer and fall. The additional work helped build team chemistry and was particularly important to a team counting so heavily on a freshman point guard.
“I think it was really good, and it gave me an idea of what I had to work on coming into the season,” Ennis said. “The difference in conditioning levels and the speed, but it just gave me a warm-up and hopefully going into the season we can carry the chemistry that we had in Canada over.”
The extra practices were also valuable for freshman guard Ron Patterson and freshman forward B.J. Johnson, who made the Canada trip, and freshman forward Tyler Roberson, who did not play in Canada because he was not yet academically eligible. And it helped sophomore guard Michael Gbinije, a transfer from Duke who sat out last season.
“Right now we are way ahead of where we would be at this stage,” said Boeheim, who’s starting his 38th season as SU’s coach. “We just have to keep building on it and keep working on it to extend the benefits out that we have.”
2. The ACC, Baby!
Syracuse and fellow Big East defectors Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are in the ACC, making Dick Vitale’s favorite conference truly the best basketball conference in the country.
When asked why he was looking forward to playing in the ACC, SU forward Jerami Grant said, “The level of competition and playing against historical teams like Duke and North Carolina. I definitely want to play against them and let everyone see how good our team is this year.”
The Orange was picked to finish second in the ACC Preseason Poll, behind Duke and ahead of North Carolina. The Orange hosts North Carolina Jan. 11 and Duke Feb. 1 at the Dome, and plays at Duke’s legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium Feb. 22. (SU does not travel to North Carolina this season.)
Led by Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the only Division I coach with more wins (957) than Boeheim, Duke is one of those teams that opposing fans really love to hate. Yes, we’ll miss Georgetown and Connecticut, but can you think of better replacements than Duke and North Carolina?
“I can’t wait to play those two teams,” SU sophomore forward DaJuan Coleman said. “It is going to be real fun.”
3. All’s Fair.
After SU’s Final Four run last season, forward C.J. Fair had a difficult choice to make: join Carter-Williams and enter the NBA draft, or return for his senior year. Thankfully for the Orange, he decided to return for SU’s first year in the ACC.
“Knowing we were going to be going into an elite conference and the excitement, it was something I wanted to be a part of,” Fair said.
Fair, 6-foot-8, led the Orange last season in scoring (14.5 points per game) and rebounding (7.0 per game), and the media members who cover the ACC picked him as Preseason Player of the Year over the likes of Virginia’s Joe Harris and Duke’s Jabari Parker.
In addition to being a senior leader along with center Baye Moussa Keita, Fair will be SU’s No. 1 option on offense after being the second or sometimes third option last season behind Triche and Southerland.
“C.J. finds a way to get his points,” Boeheim said. “He knows how to play the game and he plays off of different players very well. He’ll get more opportunities this year than he has had in the past offensively.”
4. The Next MCW.
Ennis, 6-foot-2, has big sneakers to fill: Carter-Williams was the 11th pick of the NBA draft and is off to a blazing start with the Philadelphia 76ers. But Ennis doesn’t act or play like a freshman, and he showed his grit in the third game of the Canada trip by leading the Orange to a 69-65 overtime victory over Carleton after SU trailed by 15 with 10 minutes remaining.
“In the games in Canada, he didn’t have too many turnovers, or come down, or get frustrated,” Orange sophomore guard Trevor Cooney said. “He just took the flow of the game and we went with that. He just makes things so much easier for everyone else.”
Ennis, who averaged 10 points and three assists per game in Canada, scored 12 points with three assists in 18 minutes of SU’s first exhibition game, Nov. 1 against Division II Holy Family. A native of Brampton, Ontario, Ennis is one of 46 players on the watch list of candidates for the 2014 Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award.
“He plays a lot like a veteran point guard, which is very impressive coming in as a freshman,” Boeheim said. “He has the ability to be explosive and make plays, but he also can run the team efficiently and make good decisions in the half court. I think he’s as well prepared as any freshman point guard we’ve had here.”
5. More than Cupcakes on This Menu.
Over the years, experts like Vitale have criticized SU’s non-conference schedule because it was filled with home games against “cupcakes.”
SU still has it share of those games (Fordham, St. Francis Brooklyn, High Point), but it’s also playing Minnesota and either Arkansas or California in the EA Sports Maui Invitational Nov. 25 and 26, Indiana in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Dec. 3 at the Dome, St. John’s Dec. 15 at Madison Square Garden and Villanova Dec. 28 at the Dome before starting ACC play.
“The non-conference games, you always use to get ready for conference play, that’s basically what the non-conference games are there for,” Boeheim said. “We have some very good tests for us this year in our non-conference schedule, a lot of different schemes and different styles, and I think that’s going to really help our team get ready for ACC play.”
And the ACC schedule includes home games against Miami, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and, of course, Duke and North Carolina. The Duke game, pitting Boeheim against his good friend Coach K, is sold out, while only long-range tickets remain for North Carolina.
“I think that’s going to be just as big as our Georgetown games were,” Cooney said of the Duke and North Carolina games. “I think that’s going to take the place of those games, and it’s going to be a good rivalry for our school, our student body and our fans.”