(AP) – Jim Boeheim goes into his 39th year as head coach at Syracuse with lots of new faces and the usual firm resolve to make something happen when it counts most.
“I think our biggest challenge is that we lost our three leading scorers two years in a row now, and we lost our best defensive player coming off the bench,” said Boeheim, who has 948 career victories. “Huge losses, the most that we’ve had in a while. But we have a couple starters back, we have experience at guard, we have experience inside, and we’ve got a lot of young guys who are going to get an opportunity to prove themselves.”
The Orange are ranked No. 23 as they prepare to meet Kennesaw State for the first time Friday night in the Carrier Dome in the first round of the 2K Sports Classic.
Last season began with a school-record 25 straight wins that vaulted the Orange to No. 1 in the nation. Hope for a second straight trip to the Final Four ended with a thud, though, in the third round of the NCAA tournament when the offense stalled against Dayton in a 55-53 loss, their sixth in nine games that left them at 28-6.
The Orange lost an awful lot from that team: leading scorer C.J. Fair and inside defender Baye Moussa Keita exhausted their eligibility, and standout point guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant left for the NBA.
Syracuse has another strong incoming class: 6-foot-6 guard Malachi Richardson; 6-2 point guard Kaleb Joseph; and 6-9 forward Chris McCullough.
Joseph is in line to take over for Ennis.
“I think his progress has been good,” Boeheim said. “He’s as hard a worker as any point guard we’ve ever had – probably as any guard we’ve ever had. And he understands the game.
“There’s really two tests for a freshman: how do you handle practices and how does he handle game conditions? Nobody knows the answer to that,” Boeheim said.
Center Rakeem Christmas returns for his final season and will offer solid defense in the middle as well as a bigger dose of leadership. But big Dajuan Coleman has been plagued by knee injuries that have limited his play and development in his first two years. He played in 13 games in 2013-14 before season-ending surgery in January and remains a mystery man despite eight months of hard work.
“Nothing’s changed,” Boeheim said. “He’s very limited. We have no real timetable right now. We’re hopeful that he will do something in November, but exactly what that will be, we really don’t know.”
That makes 6-10 Chinonso Obokoh an important man on the bench. A deft shot-blocker with a lot to learn on the offensive end, Obokoh was forced to sit last season because the NCAA claimed he was improperly reclassified after arriving from his native Nigeria.
Shooting guard Trevor Cooney returns for his junior year. He was the main option from long range last season and had eight games with at least five 3-pointers while shooting 90 of 240 (37.5 percent) from behind the arc. The team needs another long-range option now that Ennis (30 of 85, 35.3 percent) has departed.
Duke transfer Michael Gbinije, a 6-7 swingman who played in every game, stepped up his play at the end of the season.
“I’ve seem big improvements in (Michael Gbinije) and big improvements in Trevor,” Boeheim said. “I think Trevor has worked hard. He’s obviously a great shooter, but he’s doing other things. I think those two guys are very key for us, and Kaleb.”
While Ennis was a leader who displayed remarkable poise for a freshman, the Orange’s three other first-year players didn’t get much meaningful court time. Tyler Roberson saw action in 20 games, starting once, and shot 14 of 47 (29.8 percent), while Ron Patterson and B.J. Johnson played in 10 games apiece, combining for 42 points.
“Some freshmen really are able to step up right away. Other freshmen you kind of watch them and you realize maybe they need a little more time,” Boeheim said. “So we are just going to have to wait and see what happens. How well they’ll adjust to the games is the next question, and I don’t have the answer.”
Kennesaw State went 6-25 in 2013-14, going 3-13 after Jimmy Lallathin took over as coach when Lewis Preston took a leave of absence for personal and medical reasons.
The Owls return Delbert Love, the team’s top scorer with 12.6 points per game, and Orlando Coleman, the leading rebounder with an average of 6.2.