Welcome to Playboy.com’s 2014 Bracket Challenge

Syracuse is back in the NCAA saddle, leading the Big East and looking for a top bracket seed in March

Team Preview: Syracuse Orange

By: Nick Healey

2011-12 Record: 34-3, 17-1 in the Big East

Coach: Jim Boeheim, 890-304 (prior to season), 908-306 (to date)

Syracuse is a depressing place at the best of times. Most people only show up to leave on an airplane, and the only other ways out are the frigid, windswept highways. One minute, you’ll be enjoying a Grand Slam breakfast at a local Denny’s near an airport hotel, and then next thing you know a 300-pound Neanderthal named “Cheddar” is trying to fight you in the parking lot. Yep, it’s not much to visit, but by God can that Syracuse team play some ball. Five conference championships, four final fours, a national championship in 2002-03, all under the guidance of the legendary Jim Boeheim, who recently joined the exclusive 900-win club. Things are pretty good if you’re a ‘Cuse fan, and this year is no exception – save for one little problem…

Strongside: Naturally, there are a lot of strong points on a team that has gone 18-2 so far (their only losses coming against a Villanova team in upset mode and a freak game against Temple). Exhibit A is Michael Carter-Williams. The sophomore guard leads the league in assists per game (9.2), is right near the top in steals (3.1), and he’s being projected as a top 10 draft pick. As long as he stops shoplifting, and keeps playing like he does he will be a key cog in the team’s offense.

Another asset this team has is a balanced roster. The core of Brandon Triche, C.J. Fair, and Carter-Williams all average between 12-15 points per game. Then add in the big, athletic Rakeem Christmas to lead the way in blocks, plus a solid bench chipping in, and you’ve got a talented team, with a quality coach, which usually leads to success.

The team also rebounds very well, averaging 42 per game – putting them seventh in the NCAA – and they are tied for first in offensive rebounds per game (18.3). They also get bonus points for having a player with the last name Christmas.

Weakside: The only major concern for Syracuse is that they are reliving an eligibility disaster for the second year in a row. Last year was Fab Melo, this year it’s James Southerland, who was just recently given an indefinite suspension for academic violations. This will be a big hit to the offense as Southerland was a key perimeter shooter, hitting .375 percent from three-point range.

Another flaw is their free-throw shooting. Their .664 mark isn’t much to look at, but clearly it hasn’t caused a whole lot of trouble for them yet. Three-point shooting also hasn’t exactly been their strong suit, so losing Southerland could make matters even worse unless C.J. Fair can pick up the slack.

The university also makes you pay for a subscription to watch amateur video on their poorly designed website, so definitely hold that against them.

All told: This Syracuse team is talented, and well coached, but they will now be forced to adapt to the loss of Southerland. Skeptics will look at their recent overtime loss to Villanova and say the sky is falling, but the team won three prior games (against ranked teams like Cincinnati and Louisville) without him and they still have some time to adapt to life without a key shooter. Just how they adapt remains to be seen, but there are still plenty of weapons on this ‘Cuse team, and the coaching can help make it work. Stay tuned though, because this will be an interesting plotline in the run-up to March Madness.

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