There are two routes to take when it comes to previewing the 2016-17 Syracuse basketball team, and on the surface, neither seem overly encouraging for Jim Boeheim's club.
Route one: Syracuse lost its three leading scorers from a team that advanced all the way to the Final Four a season ago.
Route two: Syracuse lost its three leading scorers from a team that many believe didn't deserve to make the NCAA Tournament a season ago.
Both of those statements, the second one especially, likely have you wondering why the Orange check in at No. 12 on our preseason countdown.
For starters, Tyler Lydon chose not to parlay his breakout March into an early exit to the NBA. The 6'9 forward who averaged 12.2 ppg after Valentine's Day last season has reportedly added 20 pounds of muscle to make the "inside" portion of his already lethal inside-out game that much tougher for ACC opponents to deal with.
Second, Boeheim has brought in a top 15 recruiting class headlined by a trio of four-star prospects. Leading the charge is combo guard Tyus Battle, a player who, even if he doesn't wind up starting at either guard position, figures to be able to shoulder a sizable chunk of the scoring load lost with the departures of Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson and Trevor Cooney.
Finally, no team was a bigger winner in the annual offseason grad transfer lottery than Syracuse. Nebraska transfer Andrew White was one of the best players in the Big Ten last season, and is the elite scorer that the Orange desperately needed to find heading into the season. John Gillon averaged 13.2 points and 3.8 assists last season for Colorado State, and will compete with Battle and sophomore Frank Howard to be the team's new starting point guard.
There's no guarantee that Syracuse will advance to the season's final weekend like they did a year ago, but this 2016-17 squad ought to be able to piece together a more even and complete season.
Syracuse is deep and loaded with players who are similarly gifted. That's both a blessing and a burden for a head coach who historically hasn't liked to go with any more than an eight-man rotation.
The most pressing issue for the 'Cuse early in the season will be finding the best fit at point guard. This will be the seventh consecutive season that Boeheim has been forced to start a fresh floor general. That streak will continue if he hands the reins to Gillon, who is lightning quick and capable of making the highlight pass on any given possession, but who has also been saddled with turnover issues throughout his college career. The ACC will expose any turnover-prone point guard, which means Gillon will need to prove he's reliable enough to handle the duty early on in the season. The safer play might be Frank Howard, who was reliable and effective while playing just 10.5 minutes per game as a freshman. If he wins the job, it'll likely be his to lose for the next two seasons.
The other issue for Boeheim will be determining what type of attack he wants to employ. White, who stands 6'7, is a threat to score from any spot on the court and can play either the two or three. The first part of that statement also holds true for Lydon, who can be effective at either forward spot. This gives Boeheim the option of going with a big lineup that also includes returning starter Tyler Roberson (8.8 ppg/8.5 rpg) at the power forward spot, and either Dajuan Coleman or 7'2 Paschal Chukwu manning the middle. Not only would this be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, but it would make Syracuse's trademark zone that much more difficult to attack.
Regardless of who starts and who doesn't, Howard, Gillon and Battle all figure to play major minutes, and both Coleman and Chukwu will get adequate opportunities each night to make their presence known.
There isn't a piece that Boeheim doesn't have this season. He just has to figure out which ones form the prettiest picture.
Syracuse seems to have an answer for the all the standard questions that have typically been asked of recent Boeheim teams. The frontcourt is there, the depth is there, the outside shooting is there, and the rebounding is there. Now, it's just a matter of whether or not these key newcomers can work together to make the Orange's trademark 2-3 zone work the way it's supposed to.
When Syracuse was at its worst last season it was because they were being beaten in transition and their zone defense was being torched by teams with talented guards. Those are two things that can't happen in an ACC that will be as loaded as it's ever been in 2016-17. Guys like White, Gillon and Battle don't just need to learn how to play the Boeheim zone, they need to learn how to play it together.
Great size and great depth are two huge assets for any zone team, but they don't mean much when the players who possess them don't have a full understanding of what they need to be doing on the defensive end. If the Syracuse fresh faces master that aspect of the game, then there's no team in the country they shouldn't be able to hang with.