The opening round of the Maui Invitational kicks off on Monday, and the Gophers will square off against Syracuse, a team with national title aspirations. While the game will be the toughest challenge the Gophers have faced this season by far, it’s also a great opportunity to see how they do against a really, really good team.
FTB: Jim Boeheim is back as head coach amid retirement rumors last year. What are the biggest story lines facing the Orange so far this season?
TNIAAM: Don’t even get us started on those retirement rumors. We have a running joke in the fan base that it’s not an official press conference if someone hasn’t asked Jim Boeheim if he’s retiring. Boeheim’s showing no sign of letting up and any comment he makes about hanging it up should always be taken with a pillar of salt.
Obviously, the ACC move is a huge storyline. Goodbye Georgetown and UConn, hello Duke and North Carolina. There’s a strong sense that we’re going to challenge for the conference crown but now we have to actually go do it. The other big story line is what kind of Syracuse team is this? Coming off a somewhat-unexpected Final Four run, can a team loaded with freshmen do something similar or is this team destined to take a step back?
FTB: Syracuse was caught in the middle of conference realignment. How do they stack up in the new ACC and what are their aspirations?
TNIAAM: The dirty little secret of the ACC is that it’s very top-heavy. It’s almost always been Duke, UNC, someone else and then a whole bunch of mediocre teams. So coming over from the old Big East, it doesn’t look any more daunting than what we’re used to seeing. That said, there are a lot of decent teams out there and we’ll be traveling way out of our comfort zone, so the potential for losses is still out there. I’d be lying if I said Syracuse fans don’t expect to finish in the top 2 and like to think we’ve got a shot at No. 1. However, this team has a ways to go before it meets those expectations. Worst case, we expect to enter the ACC Tournament as a top four seed.
FTB: The Orange are loaded at all levels this year. Where are they most vulnerable, and what do the Gophers need to do to walk away with a win?
TNIAAM: The Orange have a couple suspect areas. First and foremost, the big men. Rakeem Christmas has yet to make “The Leap” that a lot of SU big men make around this time in their careers. Rick Jackson, Arinze Onuaku and even Fab Melo made significant progress through their careers and became dominant. Christmas has yet to show he’s going to get there. His counterpart DaJuan Coleman seems to be coming along quicker, but he’s still finding himself offensively.
The other area to be concerned with is our very inexperienced backcourt. Freshman Tyler Ennis is taking on the Jonny Flynn role and will probably average 38 minutes/game when the season’s done. Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije are both still coming into their own and are prone to disappear at times. So, there’s a lot of work-in-progress going on with this team.
FTB: St. Francis, a clear low-major, nearly took down Syracuse in their most recent game. What happened in that game and how does that affect your view of the team this year?
TNIAAM: I think there was a couple things. First and foremost, St. Francis attacked the hell out of the zone. Their big men bullied our big men around and broke down the middle of the defense, creating a lot of easy opportunities. Second, Syracuse couldn’t make free throws to save their lives, which is a running concern for this team. And third, no one really stepped up offensively until the very end of the game. Syracuse has a lot of guys who can get hot and take over a game but, you know, you’ve got to actually do it.
The Orange are good for 1-2 scares against mid-major opponents every season, it’s not something we’re too worked up about. However, it did prove that this team still has a lot to work on.
FTB: Give us three things you’re watching for during Monday’s game.
TNIAAM: First, is C.J. Fair finally ready to claim the mantle of superstar? Can he put this team on his back and will them to victory when needed? Second, how are the big men responding? Are we seeing any kind of improvement in their offensive effort? Are they creating opportunities or just getting pushed around? And finally, can somebody make a damn free throw?
I should add we will keeping a close eye on where Boeheim goes for his post-game meal. There are two Denny’s on Maui, we’re banking on him ending up at least one of them.