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Orange season a success

TIMES SPORTSWRITER
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OK, Syracuse basketball fans, take a deep breath and repeat after me: it was still a very good year. Although the Orange lost in the third round of this year's NCAA Tournament, it had 27 wins, a fourth-place finish in the rugged Big East Conference, and plenty of reason for optimism for next season.


That is probably not good enough for a fan base that has been spoiled over the years. Yet, given the fact that SU lost its top three scorers — including two NBA draft picks — from last year's team, returned just one full-time starter and tried to integrate four freshmen into the normal rotation, a 27-8 season was probably more than anyone could have hoped.


There were some down times to be sure. The Orange struggled mightily on offense through the nonconference portion of its season, suffered through a four-game losing streak in mid-January after an 18-0 start, and came up short of expectations in the Big East Conference and NCAA Tournaments after being seeded fourth and third, respectively.


Yet, there were some major accomplishments as well.


The development of senior forward Rick Jackson into one of the top players in the Big East was probably the No. 1 story for the Orange. Jackson not only was remarkably consistent, recording 17 double-doubles, he was the rock around which coach Jim Boeheim built this team.


After an offseason of dieting and sculpting his body, Jackson was a different player than in his first three seasons He averaged a whopping 35.6 minutes a game, an almost unheard of figure for a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward/ center. Jackson not only led the Big East in rebounding (10.3), field goal percentage (.588) and blocks (86), he was SU's only legitimate low-post scorer, averaging a career-best 13.1 points.


Finding someone to replace Jackson's work ethic, his physical presence and his leadership will be the No. 1 priority for Boeheim next season.


Junior Kris Joseph emerged as SU's leading scorer (14.3) after being the club's valuable sixth man a year ago. The Montreal native scored in double figures all but six games, shot 46 percent from the floor and averaged 5.2 rebounds, second behind Jackson.


Still, there was some question about Joseph's toughness, his willingness to be the go-to guy and whether he could be the man to lead this team to further heights.


Joseph disappeared for long periods in some games, then could be dominating for short stretches. Boeheim will be looking for a little more consistency if Joseph returns for his senior season as he has indicated he will.


The brunt of the criticism for SU losses this year fell squarely on the shoulders of junior point guard Scoop Jardine. Despite leading the Big East in assists (5.9) and having a better than 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, Jardine had an erratic season.


At his best, he was driving and dishing and getting his teammates involved. At his worst, Jardine was jacking up poor shots and making poor decisions with the ball.


His key turnovers down the stretch in SU's NCAA loss to Marquette drew the ire of SU fans everywhere. But, expect the Philadelphia native to be back at the controls again next year.


Much was expected of sophomore guard Brandon Triche after a solid rookie season. Looking strictly at the numbers (11.6 ppg., 3.5 assists, team-leading 85 percent free throw shooting), the Jamesville-DeWitt grad put together a pretty good year.


But closer scrutiny reveals that Triche could be invisible. And he suffered through too many poor first halves only to awake for the final 20 minutes. His shooting improved, and he became a good defender at the top of the 2-3 zone. But like Joseph, Triche needs to take his game to another level next season.


Sophomore James Southerland was in and out of Boeheim's doghouse all season. However, his up side is considerable and he could be a key man off the bench next season.


Sophomore guard Mookie Jones played in just 13 games and was relegated to basically mop-up duty. Whether he remains at SU or transfers is still to be determined.


Then there were the freshmen.


Guard Dion Waiters and forward C. J. Fair had the biggest impact. Waiters gave SU great energy off the bench and showed signs of being an explosive offensive talent. But he was often criticized by Boeheim for his defensive shortcomings and had a tendency to play out of control.


Fair was a pleasant surprise, especially in the second half of the season. The slender 6-8 rookie became a ferocious offensive rebounder and showed an ability to score inside against bigger defenders. If he gets stronger, Fair will be an inside force for the Orange next season.


Judging the rookie centers, Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita, by their numbers is probably unfair. Neither emerged as an offensive or defensive force. But there was enough potential in both to project them as solid contributors. And when both grow accustomed to the speed of the game and improve their footwork, look for that duo to do some damage.


Boeheim will welcome back 6-11 center DaShonte Riley next year after he sat out this season with a foot injury. He could immediately jump into the mix on the front line.


SU's stellar recruiting class of 6-9 forward Rakeem Christmas, 6-5 combo guard Michael Carter-Williams and 6-4 shooting guard Trevor Cooney should add immediate depth.


Christmas is a tough rebounder/defender who needs work on his offense. Both Carter-Williams and Cooney could provide SU with some much needed outside shooting prowess that it lacked this season.


But as with this year's team, fan expectations will continue to be high.

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