Jim Boeheim headed into the spring offseason facing a tall task after the Orange's run in the NCAA tournament came to an abrupt end against Butler. He said goodbye to three starters who helped lead Syracuse to one of the best seasons in school history.
Four promising freshmen have come aboard to complement seasoned veterans in guard Scoop Jardine, forward Rick Jackson, last year's quintessential sixth man, Kris Joseph, and guard Brandon Triche, who started all 35 games last season as a freshman.
"We've got a nucleus of guys that played big roles for us last year," Boeheim said Friday at media day in the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center. "Those guys have to be the nucleus of our team, and Mookie (Jones) and James (Southerland) have great opportunities to see what they can do. There's a good blend of veteran guys. You win in this league with veteran guys."
The Orange thrived last season when very few thought they would or could after losing Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris, the top three scorers from 2008-09. Boeheim guided Syracuse to a school-record 28 wins in the regular season and the Orange lost only one game on the road. They led the nation in shooting (51.6 percent), and finished 30-5, Boeheim's fourth 30-win season.
The Orange also went from unranked — and something of a laughingstock after losing to crosstown Division II foe Le Moyne in a preseason exhibition — to No. 1 in the nation the last week of the regular season and secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the second in Boeheim's tenure.
Syracuse also won the regular-season Big East title outright for only the second time, mostly because the players were genuinely unselfish.
Now, it's Joseph's turn to assume the mantel of leadership. He's eager to show he can.
"I have to step into that role," Joseph said. "We learned from watching Andy and Wes last year what needs to be done to be a great leader on a winning team. What we're going to do is follow in their footsteps, do exactly what they did. That was the great thing about our team last year. Everyone was on the same page the whole year. I think that's what it takes."
The freshman class is among the best in the nation: C.J. Fair, a 6-8 forward from Baltimore; Baye Moussa Keita, a 6-10 forward and native of Senegal who played for Oak Hill Academy (Va.); Dion Waiters, a 6-3 shooting guard from Philadelphia; and 7-foot, 267-pound center Fab Melo, a native of Brazil who attended Sagemont High School in Florida.
Melo has already impressed his new teammates.
"He's got the personality. He's got the charisma, all that," Jardine said. "I think he's going to be great for our zone, and he's willing to learn, willing to get better every day."
Melo likely will play a bigger role than he might have imagined. Boeheim announced that 7-foot center DaShonte Riley will have surgery to correct a stress fracture in his right foot and likely won't play this season.
"I'm a little iffy about it. I've never had surgery before," said Riley, who was used sparingly during the 2009-10 regular season but stepped in for the injured Onuaku in the NCAA tournament game against Gonzaga and played a key role in the Orange's second-round victory. Riley said team doctors told him he would be able to practice again in January, but he said a return to playing this season was unlikely.
Jardine, who last season combined with Joseph to form the most potent 1-2 scoring tandem off the bench in the nation (they averaged nearly 20 points), also will be looked to assume the role of a leader along with his Philadelphia buddy, Jackson, the lone senior on the team.
Boeheim won't have to worry about the stamina of his team as he begins his 35th year. Jackson is the most noticeable example of a team that looks incredibly fit — he's lost 25 pounds and says there's more to come off.
"We've got a lot of great players, a lot of young guys that are just ready to play," Jackson said. "We know what it takes to win. We've just got to talk to these young guys and show them the right way."