SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is in a good place as he starts his 35th season as coach at his alma mater — he has a seemingly endless well of talent.
Lose the Big East player of the year and two other key starters from a team that won a school-record 28 regular-season games a season ago and welcome a freshman class of four that any coach in the land would drool over.
“I’m excited about all these guys. I think they’re all capable,” said Boeheim, whose Orange are ranked 10th in the AP Top 25 preseason poll. “Who will be the guy to really step up, it’s hard to tell. We expect our upper-class guys to be the guys who really step up and lead the team to be productive.”
That would be the lone senior, forward Rick Jackson, and his Philadelphia buddy, junior guard Scoop Jardine, junior forward Kris Joseph, and guard Brandon Triche, who started all 35 games as a freshman last season, averaging 8.1 points and 2.3 assists.
“Those guys will be the nucleus of our team,” Boeheim said. “It’s a talented group, a good blend of veteran guys. You win in this league by having veteran guys, and we have some young guys who we think are really good.”
The 6-foot-9 Jackson also started every game in 2009-10 and led the team with 69 blocked shots while averaging 9.7 points and seven rebounds, both career highs.
“I’ve been waiting for this year to get started. The guys are ready to go,” said Jackson, who shed 25 pounds in the offseason. “We have a lot of talent and we have to buckle down. We have been to the Sweet 16 (of the NCAA tournament) twice and we have some veteran guys who know what it takes to win.”
Joseph will step into the starting lineup after excelling as the quintessential sixth man, averaging 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds last season. And he’s being counted on to replace a lot of the leadership lost with the departure of star Wes Johnson, Arinze Onuaku, and Andy Rautins, the team’s emotional lynchpin.
“I definitely will do some talking, but I am not a vocal guy,” said the 6-7 Joseph, who last season combined with Jardine to form a potent scoring tandem off the bench, averaging nearly 19 points a game together. “I lead by example more than anything. Everyone has to be on the same page with no egos. We worked together so well last year because everyone stayed on the same page for the whole season.”
“It is going to be a big challenge,” Jardine added. “We had guys that were here for five years. It was easy for us to follow them.”
Jackson played forward and shared duties at center with Onuaku last season, but he’s pegged to play mostly forward in his final year. Freshmen Fab Melo, a 7-footer with the wingspan of a condor, and 6-10 Baye Moussa Keita will share time at center now that 7-footer DaShonte Riley has likely been lost for the season with a stress fracture in his right foot that required surgery.
“Our big guys are key for us because we’re asking two freshmen to step in and do the work inside,” Boeheim said. “I think the two guys are very capable, but they’re going to have to work hard.”
Syracuse finished 30-5 overall and 15-3 in the Big East last season, buoyed by a strong defense that limited opponents to 66.4 points and a shooting percentage of under 40 percent, and an offense that averaged 80.9 points and led the nation in shooting at 51.6 percent. Rautins and Johnson also were dangerous from outside, each averaging over 40 percent from beyond the arc and combining for 149 3-pointers.
Boeheim isn’t yet certain who will take up the considerable slack left by their departure.
“One of our question marks will be how well we can shoot the ball. I’m pretty comfortable with myself. I think I can make some if I get open,” Boeheim said with a laugh. “But the rest is up in the air. I think we’re going to have to see. Everyone on our team can shoot 3s. It’s if they can make them.”
Jardine displayed touches of brilliance from the outside in the late stages of last season and Joseph has been working on his jump shot from 15 feet and beyond. Mookie Jones (25-of-56 for a team-high 44.6 percent) and James Southerland can be solid threats from the perimeter and have a real chance to receive more playing time after combining to play only 276 minutes last season.
“We lost two perimeter guys who played 35 minutes a game last year, so there is a large amount of playing time there,” Boeheim said. “They both have great opportunities and they have to take advantage of them.”
The other two freshman newcomers are C.J. Fair, a 6-8 forward from Baltimore, and Dion Waiters, a 6-3 shooting guard from Philadelphia. Waiters is a younger cousin of Jardine, and he’s brimming with confidence.
“I can do it all. I can shoot, I can play defense, I can pass the ball. I am going to bring everything to the table,” Waiters said.
Though he called Waiters one of the best freshman guards he’s had in a long time — and that includes the likes of Jonny Flynn and Gerry McNamara — Boeheim remained reserved in the preseason.
“I really never make any determinations on what guys are going to do based on what they did in high school,” Boeheim said. “That can be very deceptive sometimes. But we think the freshmen are good, and they’re going to get a good opportunity.”
The Orange’s nonconference schedule includes Northern Iowa in the season opener at home on Nov. 12, Michigan State, Michigan, Georgia Tech, UTEP and North Carolina State. The conference schedule is even more grueling than usual, with road games against Pittsburgh, Louisville, St. John’s, and Connecticut, and home-and-home series against Georgetown and Villanova.
“It’s much more difficult than we’d like to see,” Boeheim said. “I’d say that we might have the toughest conference schedule that we’ve had in a long time.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.