SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Jim Boeheim is back in a good place as he begins his 43rd season at Syracuse — all five starters return, he has a much stronger bench, and his youngest son is a freshman guard who's ready to contribute.
"Everybody worked hard. Everybody had a good summer," Boeheim said Friday during the team's media day. "I see more improvement than normal with this group. Kind of extraordinary."
Despite an injury-riddled roster that relied too heavily on three players — guards Tyus Battle and Frank Howard and freshman forward Oshae Brissett — Syracuse made the NCAA Tournament last spring after a one-year hiatus and reached the Sweet 16 with three dominant defensive performances, finishing at 23-14 after losing to Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke in the round of 16.
That was with a roster that featured four freshmen, a redshirt freshman and two upperclassmen starting for the first time, and a bench that consisted mainly of two players — redshirt freshman Matthew Moyer and freshman forward Bourama Sidibe. Moyer transferred after the season.Back for his junior year after giving the NBA a long look after last season, Battle will lead a team that's expected to be ranked, something that eluded the Orange a year ago. Battle led the team in scoring (19.2), finishing with 712 points, the highest total for a sophomore in school history and sixth highest overall. He also was a second-team All-ACC selection.
"I think he had a tremendous offseason," Boeheim said about Battle. "He worked extremely hard. He's shooting the ball better. Overall, he's a better player. He had a really good year last year, made a lot of big shots in a lot of games. I think his shooting percentages will get better because he'll have other guys to take some of the burden off."
Boeheim relied heavily on five players last season — the high-scoring trio along with freshman forward Marek Dolezaj and 7-foot-2 junior center Paschal Chukwu. Chukwu, who hurt his back in mid-February and never fully recovered, is healthy again, though Howard is wearing a boot to protect an injury to his left leg sustained in preseason. He's expected back before the season starts.
"(Before the injury) it was probably the best I've felt in my career," Howard said. "I feel like my game has really come together. The only thing I worry about is getting back in condition. Right now I'm just taking it slowly, letting the young guys soak everything up. I'm excited, I'm ready."
Howard had a pretty steady junior year at point guard (14.4 points, 175 assists, 68 steals but 126 turnovers) in his first season as a starter, Brissett is an emerging star (14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds), and Dolezaj shot 53.7 percent from the field and found his niche late in the season.
Freshman shooting guard Jalen Carey, a four-star recruit, is getting more work in practice in Howard's absence, while Buddy Boeheim is ready for his chance.
"I think I can come in and make smart plays for the team," Buddy said. "Just toughness and being able to help our team win any way possible. Overall, I think I know what I need to do."