Postcard from Syracuse (Cont.)
At one point during lunch, I asked Boeheim how much longer he plans to coach. When I told him I would set the over/under at four years, he gave me the impression (without answering explicitly) that I should take the under. He had surgery this summer to repair a detached retina in his left eye, but for the most part he's in good health. Still, his three young children are about to enter their high school years, and I get the feeling Boeheim will want to be there to watch them.
Then again, he's not exactly rushing toward the door, either. Besides getting ready to coach his best team in recent years, Boeheim is also signed on to be an assistant again at the London Olympics next summer. "One thing I've been told is you don't want to get out too early," he told me. "If you want to do it and you're doing a good job, then there's no reason to get out. I could have left six or seven years ago. Look what I would have missed."
Heart and soul: Jardine. I spoke with Jardine for a good half-hour before the start of practice, and I enjoyed the visit as much as any interaction I've had with a player. He is charismatic, outgoing, mature, and very, very smart. Even though he put up some good numbers last season, Jardine has to eliminate the killer mistakes he made at the end of close games. "His mistakes are very flagrant. He knows that," Boeheim said. Jardine had a terrific summer attending three elite Nike camps, and he also played for USA Basketball at the World University Games in China. It's also a great thing when your senior point guard is your best leader. When Melo threw a careless outlet pass out of bounds during practice, Jardine yelled at him from the sideline, "I keep telling you, you gotta look for the point guard!" That's exactly what this team needs from him.
Most improved: Melo. The 7-foot sophomore is a good 30 pounds lighter than he was at this time last year. In retrospect, it's clear that he was not nearly prepared to meet the sky-high expectations of being the Big East's preseason Freshman of the Year. Melo had played organized basketball for just four years and had spent just one year playing high school basketball in America after emigrating from his native Brazil. "I came to high school with all this hype. I didn't ask for that. They gave it to me," he said. His improvement is significant because the center position was Syracuse's main weakness last season. While 6-10 sophomore Baye Moussa Keita played respectably, Boeheim hopes to get a boost in the paint from incoming freshman Rakeem Christmas, a 6-9 forward. Christmas is a spectacular athlete, but he is still just a freshman who needs to get stronger. Nor does he bring much in the scoring department having averaged fewer than 10 points per game as a senior in high school.
X-factor: Joseph. Boeheim assured me that Joseph, who was the team's leading scorer last season at 14.3 points per game, was headed for "a Wesley Johnson-type of year." Maybe. All I can tell you is that I hardly noticed him in practice. Joseph has a lot of talent and puts up good numbers, but even Boeheim concedes the kid is not assertive enough. I wonder if the problem is more that Joseph lacks the skills to create his own shot. Regardless, the one thing this team is lacking is a clear go-to scorer for those critical late-game, end-of-shot-clock situations. If Joseph emerges as that player -- if he has a Big East player of the year-type season -- then that is Syracuse's best-case scenario.
Glue Guy: Triche. Normally I look for a lockdown defender for this category, but nobody really plays that role in Boeheim's 2-3 zone. Triche, a 6-4 junior, didn't shoot it great last season (41.9 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from three), but he is a former starting point guard who provides another pair of steady, experienced hands on the ball.
Lost in the shuffle: Michael Carter-Williams, 6-5 freshman guard. This pick surprises even me because Carter-Williams was the one player who jumped out at me during practice. He looks real smooth with the ball in his hands. He's a comfortable ballhandler, makes nifty pinpoint passes and knocked down a couple of open threes. He reminded me a little of UConn guard Jeremy Lamb. I think Carter-Williams will be in the rotation, but he is a young, thin, concave-chested kid, and I suspect his body might wear down over the course of a season. Boeheim told me Carter-Williams is a future pro, but there are so many good (and older) perimeter players on this team that I'm not sure he'll have as much opportunity to show that.
If you're looking to put together a top tier consisting of the six or seven best teams in America, Syracuse definitely belongs. But if you're looking for a strong bet to win a national championship, I'm skeptical. Syracuse is going to beat a lot of teams and it is capable of getting to a Final Four, but right now its most talented players are the younger guys, and that's usually not a championship formula. Syracuse hasn't been to the Elite Eight since it won a title in 2003. I like this team to get that far -- but no further.