Ever since SU football toppled then second-ranked Clemson over two weeks ago, there’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Dino Babers’s squad. It’s almost as if Orange fans have forgotten the fact that SU basketball opens its season later this week with an exhibition matchup versus Southern New Hampshire University in the Carrier Dome.
It’s certainly not going to be an overwhelmingly entertaining or competitive matchup. Keep in mind, SNHU is a Division II team that has about the same talent level as the likes of Le Moyne College (SNHU lost to LMC in the D2 Tournament last year) who SU throttled by more than 30 points in an exhibition matchup last year. This game is nothing more than a tune-up for an SU team that kicks off its regular season schedule next Friday vs Cornell. However, with that being said, it’s the first time we’re going to see this new-look SU team in semi-competitive play this season and there a few things we should be looking out for in the matchup.
What’s the lineup going to look like?
SU comes into the 2017 season with nearly an entirely new roster. The Orange lost six of its top 7 scorers to either graduation or transferring in the offseason and Tyus Battle is the only returner that averaged double-digit scoring last season. With all of those factors hitting the program at once, it’s very up in the air as to what the starting lineup and rotation is going to look like as the season starts. Wednesday should help to answer a few of those questions when Jim Boeheim sends his first starting five on to the floor. Right now there are probably only two confirmed starters. Frank Howard has far and away the most experience at the point guard position on this SU team, so more than likely we will see him as the starting floor general on Wednesday night. Will he live up to the expectations that come with that starting role? I’ll get to that later. The other guy that has a starting position locked up right now is Battle. The sophomore is SU’s most talented player and best scorer and he’ll be the person the offense runs through this season and will probably see the most minutes of anyone on the team. While the backcourt starters seem to be pretty predictable, the frontcourt is a little dicier. At Syracuse media day, Jim Boeheim said that Matthew Moyer is his most experienced forward. Moyer has yet to play a single minute of basketball for the Orange after redshirting last season. In a word, the SU frontcourt is young. Paschal Chukwu has accrued the most minutes of anyone on the backline, but still missed most of last season with an eye injury. I’d expect both Moyer and Chukwu to start because of their experience within the program, but there are some talented freshman like Oshae Brissett, Bourama Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj who could sneak their way into the starting lineup. There’s also the possibility that Boeheim goes with a three-guard lineup and also starts grad transfer Geno Thorpe. Especially in the early part of the season and in this game more specifically, I’m expecting to see Jim Boeheim do a lot of shifting with his lineup, inserting guys in different spots and trying to figure out what works best for his personnel and for his system. Wednesday will help to explain some of the questions I raised above, but by no means will we have everything figured out.
Can Paschal Chukwu get the job done in the middle?
As I previously mentioned Paschal Chukwu missed most of last season after suffering a torn retina in a win over Holy Cross last November. The big man had expectations of becoming a big-time shot blocker in the middle of the 2-3 zone. His 7-foot-2 frame is still incredibly tantalizing in terms of pure length, but the rest of his body leaves something to be desired. His legs look like toothpicks and the rest of him fits that same skinny mold. During the Orange vs White scrimmage, he got bullied around a bit by much smaller teammates like Moyer and Sidibe and he just doesn’t look as physical as you’d like your prospective starting center and rim protector to be. This may have been a product of the fact that Orange vs White is just a scrimmage and doesn’t really mean all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it also begs the question of if this is going to a recurring theme throughout the season. That’s a theme that SU cannot afford. While still just an exhibition game, this SNHU matchup could be very telling for Chukwu as he goes against guys that aren’t his teammates for the first time since that Holy Cross contest. The Penmen’s tallest player is listed at 6-foot-9, a full five inches shorter than Chukwu and let’s be honest, the Penmen aren’t even close to as talented as many of the big men he’ll face this season in the ACC. Chukwu needs to come out with a dominant performance on Wednesday at the very least on the defensive end. If he can’t stop much shorter and less talented SNHU Penmen in the middle of the zone, then how can we expect him to be effective against Duke Blue Devils or North Carolina Tar Heels?
Is Frank Howard ready for a leadership role?
Now that we’ve identified an experienced member of the frontcourt who needs to show out on Wednesday, let’s move to where the ball runs through on offense: the backcourt. Frank Howard entered his sophomore season in 2016 as SU’s starting point guard, but later lost that distinction to the now-graduated John Gillon. He then went on to have a really tough end to the season averaging just 4.5 points and 3.6 assists per game in 2016. It was not the kind of season you want to see from a guy that is now going to be your definitive starting point guard to begin the season this year. While Geno Thorpe is lurking in the background, he’s more of a shooting guard than a point guard, so the starting job is really Howard’s to lose this season, not Thorpe’s to win like it was last year for Gillon. The first time Howard is going to get the opportunity to show that he’s an improved player and that he’s ready to be the leader on the floor for this Syracuse team is this Wednesday night showdown with SNHU. Howard has to show that he’s ready to run the offense more effectively than he was last season. He has to show that he can both score and distribute the basketball in the most effective way possible. We saw his three-point shot improve to a certain degree last season, but we need to see even more improvement in that shot this season if he wants to help fill the void at the guard position left by Gillon and Andrew White. Most importantly of all, Howard has to show that he can take care of the basketball. Probably the biggest knock on him from last season was that he was a turnover machine and that knock had some evidence behind it. Despite playing fewer minutes on average than anyone who played all 34 games for the Orange last season, Howard was still third on the team in turnovers. You simply can’t have that kind of play from the guy on your team who is going to be handling the ball more than pretty much anyone else on the floor. Frank Howard has a lot of questions to answer this season and it all starts on Wednesday with the SNHU Penmen.