With all five starters returning, including potential All-Americas Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara, the only thing different about the Syracuse basketball program this season is its nickname.
Syracuse University officials announced last spring that the school's athletic squads would drop the gender determiner in their nicknames in favor of the universal Orange.
Ah, but a rose is a rose and, apparently, an orange is still an orange, because the Syracuse Orange will be just as sweet as last year's Sweet 16 team.
Warrick, a 6-foot-8 pogo-stick, decided to delay his entry into the NBA Draft and returned for his senior year. Also back are fellow starters Craig Forth, Josh Pace, Demetris Nichols and the aforementioned McNamara, whose outside shooting prowess makes him the perfect complement to Warrick's one-man dunkfest inside.
"We've got good experience," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We'll have good depth and size. The key for us will be how well the sophomores play."
Boeheim was referring to the four players in last year's freshman class. If Syracuse is to improve on last season's 23-8 record and possibly return to the Final Four for the second time in three years, the boost must come from Nichols and classmates Terrence Roberts, Louie McCroskey and Darryl Watkins.
FRONTCOURTOne year after Carmelo Anthony tearfully announced his decision to enter the NBA Draft, Warrick's smile beamed ear to ear as he proclaimed he would return to Syracuse for his senior year. Warrick's not Anthony's. He doesn't have Melo's ball-handling skills or jump shot, but he did average 19.8 points and 8.6 rebounds as a junior. "He's as good as anybody returning in college basketball," Boeheim said.
Forth is often the target of criticism -- from both Boeheim and Syracuse fans. Still, the 7-footer has started every game of his college career and has been a solid contributor. He's built like a tree trunk and sets most of the screens that free up McNamara. He hardly gets off the ground, but he still blocked 63 shots compared to Warrick's 35.
Nichols came on during the final month of the season, starting 15 games after point guard Billy Edelin suddenly left the team for personal reasons.
In terms of depth, Roberts, a 6-9 forward, and Watkins, a 6-11 center, have NBA potential. For the moment Roberts is stuck behind Warrick, while Watkins should inherit the minutes of former backup center Jeremy McNeil.
BACKCOURTMcNamara could run for mayor in two towns and win handily. The pride of Scranton, Pa., has become one of the most popular players in Syracuse history after just two seasons. As a freshman, McNamara drilled six 3-pointers in the NCAA title game against Kansas. Last season, McNamara broke the school's single-season record for 3-pointers, climbed into a third-place tie for career 3-pointers and reached the 1,000-point plateau.
McNamara will play both guard spots. Pace figures to start alongside McNamara. Pace, a lefty, can't shoot outside of 12 feet, but he's unstoppable in the paint and he's a terrific defender. McCroskey will press Pace for more playing time. Freshman Josh Wright should come in and give McNamara a breather or the chance to swing over to the off-guard spot.
The riddle of Edelin continues. He's missed time in three consecutive seasons for a myriad of reasons. Edelin's return this year rests on his petition to the NCAA to waive its rule regarding the minimum number of credits needed to be eligible. A decision is expected by the end of October.
FINAL ANALYSISWarrick returned to school for several reasons. As a businessman, Warrick saw an opportunity to raise his value for the 2005 NBA Draft. As a student, Warrick should graduate this December, a semester ahead of schedule. And as a competitor, Warrick wants a national title.
"We want to prove that (the 2003 championship) wasn't just Carmelo," Warrick said at the Reebok ABCD camp in New Jersey in July. "We want to do it again."
With five starters back and a host of improving young players, the Orange look ripe.