Tyus Battle returns, making Syracuse a stronger team
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim enters his 43rd season with a luxury few other coaches around the country can claim — all five Orange starters return from last year’s Sweet 16 team.
The roster also has three freshmen, including the Hall of Fame coach’s sharp-shooting son, and a transfer who’s ready to go after practicing with the team for a year.
Things are looking up.
“The same guys, so we should improve,” Boeheim said. “I think we’re way ahead of where we were last year.”
Syracuse finished 23-14 overall and 8-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season and was not ranked at any point, a rarity in Boeheim’s long reign. That streak is over. The Orange are No. 16 in the preseason, thanks in part to the decision by star guard Tyus Battle to return for his junior year after flirting with entering the NBA draft.
“I think he had a tremendous offseason,” Boeheim said. “He worked extremely hard. Overall, he’s a better player.”
Battle, who nearly made the AP preseason All-America team, led Syracuse in scoring (19.2) and finished with 712 points, the highest total for a sophomore in school history. He said the experience of working out for NBA teams was invaluable, before taking his name out of consideration for the draft.
“It helped me grow tremendously,” Battle said. “I’m just applying it to my game, trying to get better.”
Joining Battle in the backcourt will be point guard Frank Howard (14.4 points, 175 assists, 68 steals with 126 turnovers), a senior with one year under his belt as a starter. Howard suffered an injury to his left ankle in preseason and isn’t expected back before the season opener at home on Nov. 6 against Eastern Washington.
“Going into the injury, it was probably the best I’ve felt in my career,” Howard said. “I feel like my game has really come together. I’m excited. I’m ready.”
Freshman guard Jalen Carey is recovering from an ankle sprain suffered in the camp-opening scrimmage two weeks ago, and reserve point guard Howard Washington is rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered last January.
The Orange’s three upset victories in the NCAA Tournament as an 11th seed — over Arizona State , TCU , and Michigan State — were low-scoring affairs punctuated by Boeheim’s signature zone defense and a plodding offense that had trouble scoring. Syracuse averaged 66.6 points with a scoring margin of just 2.8 and relied heavily on three players — Battle, Howard and freshman forward Oshae Brissett — because of injuries.
“We were on a very thin edge last year,” Boeheim said. “If one of our top three guys had ever gotten hurt, we wouldn’t have been able to win a game.”
Among those who were hurt were wiry 7-foot-2 center Paschal Chukwu, who has recovered from back woes, and 6-10 forward Bourama Sidibe, who’s rounding into form after surgery in the offseason for tendinitis in his left knee.
The Orange’s performance in the NCAA Tournament caught most observers by surprise. That experience of performing in the clutch should help this team.
“We’re really locked in with the run we had,” Brissett said. “I feel like we have no ceiling right now.”
Here are some other things to know about Syracuse:
The coach welcomes his youngest son, Buddy, to the team. The 6-5 point guard will add long-range shooting, something lacking last season when the Orange shot just 31.8 percent.
“I think I can come in and make smart plays for the team,” said Buddy, who scored 19 points in his first scrimmage and won the team’s 3-point shooting contest. “Overall, I think I know what I need to do.”
DEPTH AT LAST
Battle and Howard were 1-2 in the nation last season in minutes played, and Brissett tied for fourth as all three averaged over 38 minutes.
Boeheim, Carey, 6-8 freshman forward Robert Braswell and East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes give the Orange depth they haven’t had since NCAA sanctions were levied three years ago.
“We had no depth last year,” Boeheim said. “This year we have 10 guys that are capable of playing at a pretty high level. I won’t hesitate to play any of the guys on our team.”
Brissett will look to build off an impressive freshman season (14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds) and he’s off to a rousing start. He led all scorers with 29 points in the opening scrimmage. If he had a weakness last year, it was his shooting near the basket. That’s something Boeheim expects will change.
“Finishing around the basket is important,” Boeheim said. “He didn’t finish at a high percentage. I think he can do that. I think he’s stronger. He’s improved.”
Because of the team’s depth, expect the Orange to try to revert to yesteryear when its transition game was stout.
“You’re able to run more when you have more players,” Boeheim said. “When you’re playing 40 minutes, you can’t run a lot, you can’t press a lot.”
Forward Marek Dolezaj shot 53.7 percent from the field and found his niche late in his freshman season. He scored in double digits in three of the final six games, becoming an important piece of the offense.
“We won once he started putting the ball in the basket,” Boeheim said. “Marek was really the offensive difference in the way we played at the end of the year.”
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This story has been corrected to show Syracuse sanctions were levied three years ago, not four.