SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim decided last season to redshirt a promising freshman guard and break from the norm by giving his bench plenty of playing time. Just thinking ahead, apparently.
The Orange lost its top four players from last year's team, which won a school-record 34 games and lost only three, and yet as the new season looms Syracuse is ranked No. 9 in the AP preseason poll.
The sky's the limit, it seems, for Boeheim's 37th year as head coach. Even without top scorer Kris Joseph, spiritual leader Scoop Jardine, Big East sixth man of the year Dion Waiters and big man Fab Melo, the defensive player of the year in the conference in 2011-12.
"We've never had a team, that I can remember, lose this many guys who were such important parts of what we did, and if we had a team that had lost even close to what this team did, we certainly weren't picked in the top 20 the next year," Boeheim said. "It's really a credit to the returning players ... that people think pretty highly of them."
The 2012-13 season will be like no other in Boeheim's reign. It is Syracuse's final year in the Big East before the school moves to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Jim Calhoun has retired at archrival Connecticut, and it's the first time Boeheim will start a season without assistant Bernie Fine, who was fired a year ago amid allegations of sexual abuse lodged by two former ballboys.
Boeheim, soon to be 68 and just 10 wins shy of 900, says everything seems pretty much the same as it's always been.
"It does not feel different," he said. "Next year I'm sure will feel different because you're in a whole different league. There will be an adjustment period. But this feels like a normal Big East season."
Probably because the Orange is loaded again and ready to challenge for another conference title. Syracuse finished 19-0 at home in 2011-12 and won the Big East regular season with a 17-1 record.
A projected starting lineup: senior guard Brandon Triche, 6-foot-6 sophomore Michael Carter-Williams at point guard; hulking freshman DaJuan Coleman (6-9, 288 pounds) and sophomore Rakeem Christmas (6-9, 242) at the back of Boeheim's signature zone defense; and 6-8 junior C.J. Fair at small forward. Throw in 6-8 senior forward James Southerland, junior center Baye Moussa Keita, freshman forward Jerami Grant, and guard Trevor Cooney, that sharpshooting redshirt from last season who's primed to contribute after an intense year of training, and you have an imposing group.
"Last year we had so many veteran guys coming back, they had come off a successful season," said Boeheim, whose Orange last year was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 for the final two months of the season. "There was no reason to think they wouldn't be very successful at this stage of the year.
"This team is different. I'd say these guys are as advanced as any group we've ever had at this stage. They have done as much work or more work as any group we've ever had, and I'm very confident they're as well-prepared as they could be. I'm as ready to go as I can remember."
So, too, are the players.
"I think this team can be very good starting up top with Mike and Brandon and then down to our bigs," said Fair, who started nine games last season and averaged 8.5 points and 5.4 rebounds. "A lot of people are sleeping on that this year, but that's something we use in our favor. I'm very confident in this team. I think we can go deep in the tournament and maybe take it all the way. I'm very excited for this season to start."
Not only did the Orange lose a lot of scoring — the core four combined to average 41.2 points on a team that averaged 74.1 and won by an average margin of 13.1 — it lost a big dose of leadership with the departures of Joseph and Jardine.
Triche and Southerland are prepared to assume the roles of elder statesmen.
"I am one of those guys who says what needs to be said," Triche said. "I don't say anything extra, but I'm going to pick my teammates up and say what I need to say."
Added Southerland: "My goal is to be an impact player as one of the two seniors. There's going to be a lot of attention on us, and we have to get the younger guys going."