Syracuse started the season at #16 in the AP Poll. “A sweet 16 team returning all five starters and adding shooters,” you heard over and over and over again. The Orange fell out of the top 25 four games into the season and never made it back. March failed to salvage the season, as Baylor took out Syracuse in the first round 78-69. Given preseason expectations, it’s pretty difficult to argue that this season was a success, even if a very respectable 10-8 conference record, and more importantly, an upset over #1 Duke at Cameron propelled Syracuse off the bubble for the first time in three seasons.
Simple questions: what happened? Why did the Orange fall so short of preseason expectations?
The returning players failed Syracuse. High expectations for Syracuse were based on the assumption that players were going to progress. Instead, some went sideways and some went backwards. Let’s take a look at all five of SU’s significant returners:
Tyus Battle started the year without a three-point jumpshot. Slowly it came back, but the damage was already done in the form of four non-conference losses. He picked up his play in the ACC, but still finished the season averaging two less points (17.2) than he did last season. He also developed distribution skills, playing point guard as needed and averaging nearly a half an assist more. Battle is one of the players who didn’t get better or worse. He went sideways. Since he’s a year older, his draft stock wasn’t so lucky: it likely went down. We will find out for sure this summer.
Oshae Brissett has the talent to be an NBA lottery pick. He just didn’t show it this season. The Canadian’s season was full of cold shooting spells. He often looked stripped of his confidence and his decision making with the ball was slow. Brissett’s three point percentage dipped five percentage points. His points and rebounds per game took a down turn as well. The sophomore was just plain disappointing this season and the only possible excuse was an off-season hernia that affected his summer workouts.
Frank Howard started the year injured and didn’t find his game until the ACC tournament. The senior point guard played as if allergic to the rim. Nowhere to be seen was the ability he displayed during his junior season to get inside and use his length to hit floaters over rim protectors. His jump shot was routinely off the mark for a large portion of the season as well. If Howard had finished with a strong tournament, the struggles would have been chalked up to injury and all would be forgiven. Instead, he was suspended for violating team policy. Howard’s scoring average fell nearly five points and he undoubtedly went backwards this season.
Paschal Chukwu was the butt of most of Jim Boeheim’s jabs in post-game press conferences this season. In fairness to Chukwu, his numbers decline is on par with his minutes decline. But his minutes decline was mostly a product of getting pushed around in the paint and bullied on the glass. Chukwu isn’t as disappointing as Brissett or Howard because the expectations weren’t as high. But it would be pretty tough to argue the 7-footer showed progress in his senior season.
Marek Dolezaj was pushed out of the starting lineup by Elijah Hughes from the very start. Still, the Slovakian didn’t show the improvements to his game that his promising freshman season hinted at. Dolezaj still doesn’t do anything poorly and still plays his heart out. Those are the qualities that make him such a fan favorite. But the problems in his freshman year— lack of strength, lack of confidence on offense— were still very present during the sophomore campaign. Dolezaj is another case of the sideways step.
A look at SU’s returners reveals a harrowing truth. It’s impossible to say with any real confidence that any of them improved their games this season. The newcomers are free of blame. Jalen Carey never got a fair chance, Buddy Boeheim was a pleasant surprise and Elijah Hughes was exactly the scorer we thought he would be. Unfortunately, this season’s shortcoming are on the same group that led Syracuse to an admirable Sweet 16 run the year prior.