SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Watch the Syracuse Orangemen prepare for the new season and one thing stands out: Seven months after they won their first national championship, they’re thinking big again.
“Anything less than going back to the Final Four isn’t going to be good,” sophomore guard Billy Edelin said. “I want to win again, and everybody thinks we can’t do it because of Melo.”
Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to a 30-5 record and the national title as a freshman last season, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds a game. But Anthony left school after one year and is now playing in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets.
The Orangemen have to make up for what he and guard Kueth Duany contributed last season. Those contributions go far beyond scoring points and grabbing rebounds.
“You don’t lose those guys and expect to be as good,” said coach Jim Boeheim, whose 653rd victory, a dramatic 81-78 win over Kansas in April, was the sweetest of his 27 years at his alma mater.
“He (Anthony) was by far the best player in college basketball. It wasn’t even close,” Boeheim said. “That’s the key. When you lose a player of Carmelo’s abilities, everybody’s got to pick it up a little bit. No one guy is ever going to replace him.”
The Orangemen have a solid core. Starters Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, and Craig Forth return, along with reserves Edelin, Josh Pace, Jeremy McNeil and Matt Gorman to give Boeheim valuable experience.
Last year, Boeheim successfully integrated three freshmen into the lineup, transforming a team that wasn’t even ranked in the preseason to the championship at the end.
This year, he has four first-year players with the long arms perfectly suited to play the Orangemen’s strong 2-3 zone defense: 6-foot-9 forward Terrence Roberts of Jersey City, N.J.; 6-8 forward Demetris Nichols of Boston; 6-11 center-forward Darryl Watkins of Paterson, N.J.; and Louie McCroskey, a 6-5 guard out of New York City.
McCroskey has academic problems and has not practiced with the team. That has forced Boeheim to use players at more than one position as he tries to piece together his annual puzzle.
“It’s going to take some time,” Boeheim said. “We’re fortunate. We have seven guys back who played and know the program and have a good understanding of what we try to do. That’s all real positive.”
Syracuse has more than one option to take Duany’s place in the backcourt. McNamara, who hit six 3-pointers in the first half of the championship game, could move over from point guard, giving way to Edelin, a deft penetrator. Pace, who was one of the keys in Syracuse’s scintillating tournament run, also is a capable swingman.
“We all just have to work together,” said Pace, who had a career-high 14 points against Auburn in the East Regional and 12 in the national semifinal win over Texas. “Maybe that’s the key factor.”
Anthony still casts a long shadow, but this team is intent on proving he wasn’t the sole reason Syracuse won it all.
“He’s obviously one of the reasons we got there, but we had six, seven, eight other guys that contributed,” said McNamara, who averaged 13.3 points per game. “To say he’s the reason we got there downplays what the rest of the guys on the team did.
“We don’t look at it that way. We look at it as he was part of our team. That’s the same thing we have this year - a team.”
And a pretty decent one at that.
In the Orangemen’s first exhibition game, a 94-82 win Tuesday night over a team of former college players, Boeheim went with a starting lineup of McNamara, Edelin, Warrick, Pace and Forth.
Forth, bothered last season by a foot injury, has lost 25 pounds and again will split time with McNeil, who’s leaner and vowing to be meaner. Together, they averaged 7.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and blocked 141 shots.
The 6-8 Warrick, who developed a strong inside game last year with Anthony drawing double coverage much of the time, averaged 14.8 points and 8.5 rebounds and was named the most improved player in the Big East. He worked hard on his outside game in the offseason because he’ll be called on to do some of the things Anthony did at small forward.
Placing last year in proper perspective might be the most important task.
“They all know what they are, what they’ve got to do if they want to be a great basketball team,” Boeheim said. “And that’s what they’re going to focus in on. We’re not last year’s team. We have to approach it that way, really.”
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