SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- As Jim Boeheim pulled his GMC truck into a parking space and fed coins into a meter, I told him that I couldn't believe what a beautiful day it was. The sun was out, the air was crisp, there was not a cloud in the sky. Not exactly a normal occurence in a place where freezing winters are followed by rainy summers.
Boeheim shrugged. "You never know," he said. "We had recruits here and it was bad."
Yup, that's Jimmy B for ya. If he squints hard enough into any blue sky, he's apt to find a gray cloud somewhere. Boeheim has a well-earned reputation for being dyspeptic and curmudgeonly, but the truth is he's also good company. He's funny, he's smart, he's curious. He's even nice sometimes. But the main thing I like about Boeheim is that he's honest. There are no pretensions with this man. He tells you what he thinks, all the time, every time.
This is especially true when he is talking about his team. On the college hoops beat, you run into two kinds of coaches -- those who are always trying to convince you their team is better than it really is, and those who try to convince you it's worse. Boeheim never talks up his team, and he never talks it down. He just gives it to you straight. So I took notice a short while later when, as Boeheim was eating salad in our booth at Asti, a restaurant located in Syracuse's Little Italy neighborhood, he said, "This is the best team we've had in a long time."
After attending the Orange's two-hour practice later that afternoon at the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center, I can say that I agree. Syracuse returns nine of its top 10 scorers from the team that went 26-7 last year and lost to Marquette in the second round of the NCAA tournament. All of those returnees have improved. Scoop Jardine, the fifth-year senior point guard, is in the best shape of his life. Ditto for junior guard Brandon Triche and senior swingman Kris Joseph. The two players who got major minutes last season as freshmen, C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters, also look stronger and more efficient. Fab Melo, the great freshman megabust from a year ago, lost so much weight that I spent the first 15 minutes of practice wondering where he was.
What's more, Boeheim has added two McDonald's All-Americans to this bountiful mix. So even as he faces another dreary winter in upstate New York, Boeheim has something resembling a sunny disposition. "This is my fifth year here, and it's the first time he hasn't been killing us at the start of the season," Jardine told me. "Coach always says at the start, 'Oh, you guys aren't any good,' but he's not saying that this time. You can tell he really feels like we have something special."
It won't be easy to sort through all those bodies to come up with a workable rotation, but that's a problem Boeheim is thrilled to have. "Some years we've only had eight or nine players on scholarship. I think we could play nine or 10[this season] without any issues at all," he said. "We've had three days of practice and every day is a little better than the other one. Usually you start strong and step back a little, but right now there's no slippage because we have so much competition. You can't take time off."
Indeed, that internal competition is the best part about having so many guys. But here's the rub: Syracuse has a lot of good players, but I don't think it has any great ones. I'm sure some of them will play in the NBA someday, but as I watched practice it was hard to pick out a surefire pro.
It's likewise doubtful that anyone on this team will warrant consideration for first-team All-America. Most preseason publications don't have a single Syracuse player on their first, second or third All-America teams. At the Big East's media day on Wednesday, Joseph was among the six players selected preseason first team all-conference, and Jardine was on the five-man second team. None of their other teammates were projected to be among the best 16 players in the league.
Needless to say, preseason predictions don't mean much, and Duke won a title two years ago without being stocked with future NBA all-stars. But if Syracuse is going to get to New Orleans, it will have to be because of their intangible advantages like experience, depth, toughness and chemistry.
The best of those intangibles will be the balding, spectacled man on the sideline. Now entering his 35th season as head coach at his alma mater, Boeheim, who will turn 67 in November, evinces a relaxed and -- dare I say it -- joyful air these days. He is as intense and competitive as ever, but he is content to stroll the sidelines during practice while assistants Mike Hopkins and Adrian Autry conduct drills. He is also one of the few coaches in America who lets his local media watch every practice. Most other coaches are too uptight to even think about doing that.
Boeheim is also funny. At one point during the scrimmage, Waiters was complaining that he was fouled on a previous exchange. Boeheim stopped play and said to Hopkins, "Hold up, hold up. Dion said he got fouled. Is he OK?" Waiters shook his head, clearly not happy to be teased, but Boeheim pressed on. He grinned, raised his hand and said in a high voice, "Hey Mom, I got fouled!"
At one point during lunch, I asked Boeheim how much longer he plans to coach. When I told him I would set the over/under at four years, he gave me the impression (without answering explicitly) that I should take the under. He had surgery this summer to repair a detached retina in his left eye, but for the most part he's in good health. Still, his three young children are about to enter their high school years, and I get the feeling Boeheim will want to be there to watch them.
Then again, he's not exactly rushing toward the door, either. Besides getting ready to coach his best team in recent years, Boeheim is also signed on to be an assistant again at the London Olympics next summer. "One thing I've been told is you don't want to get out too early," he told me. "If you want to do it and you're doing a good job, then there's no reason to get out. I could have left six or seven years ago. Look what I would have missed."
Heart and soul: Jardine. I spoke with Jardine for a good half-hour before the start of practice, and I enjoyed the visit as much as any interaction I've had with a player. He is charismatic, outgoing, mature, and very, very smart. Even though he put up some good numbers last season, Jardine has to eliminate the killer mistakes he made at the end of close games. "His mistakes are very flagrant. He knows that," Boeheim said. Jardine had a terrific summer attending three elite Nike camps, and he also played for USA Basketball at the World University Games in China. It's also a great thing when your senior point guard is your best leader. When Melo threw a careless outlet pass out of bounds during practice, Jardine yelled at him from the sideline, "I keep telling you, you gotta look for the point guard!" That's exactly what this team needs from him.
Most improved: Melo. The 7-foot sophomore is a good 30 pounds lighter than he was at this time last year. In retrospect, it's clear that he was not nearly prepared to meet the sky-high expectations of being the Big East's preseason Freshman of the Year. Melo had played organized basketball for just four years and had spent just one year playing high school basketball in America after emigrating from his native Brazil. "I came to high school with all this hype. I didn't ask for that. They gave it to me," he said. His improvement is significant because the center position was Syracuse's main weakness last season. While 6-10 sophomore Baye Moussa Keita played respectably, Boeheim hopes to get a boost in the paint from incoming freshman Rakeem Christmas, a 6-9 forward. Christmas is a spectacular athlete, but he is still just a freshman who needs to get stronger. Nor does he bring much in the scoring department having averaged fewer than 10 points per game as a senior in high school.
X-factor: Joseph. Boeheim assured me that Joseph, who was the team's leading scorer last season at 14.3 points per game, was headed for "a Wesley Johnson-type of year." Maybe. All I can tell you is that I hardly noticed him in practice. Joseph has a lot of talent and puts up good numbers, but even Boeheim concedes the kid is not assertive enough. I wonder if the problem is more that Joseph lacks the skills to create his own shot. Regardless, the one thing this team is lacking is a clear go-to scorer for those critical late-game, end-of-shot-clock situations. If Joseph emerges as that player -- if he has a Big East player of the year-type season -- then that is Syracuse's best-case scenario.
Glue Guy: Triche. Normally I look for a lockdown defender for this category, but nobody really plays that role in Boeheim's 2-3 zone. Triche, a 6-4 junior, didn't shoot it great last season (41.9 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from three), but he is a former starting point guard who provides another pair of steady, experienced hands on the ball.
Lost in the shuffle: Michael Carter-Williams, 6-5 freshman guard. This pick surprises even me because Carter-Williams was the one player who jumped out at me during practice. He looks real smooth with the ball in his hands. He's a comfortable ballhandler, makes nifty pinpoint passes and knocked down a couple of open threes. He reminded me a little of UConn guard Jeremy Lamb. I think Carter-Williams will be in the rotation, but he is a young, thin, concave-chested kid, and I suspect his body might wear down over the course of a season. Boeheim told me Carter-Williams is a future pro, but there are so many good (and older) perimeter players on this team that I'm not sure he'll have as much opportunity to show that.
If you're looking to put together a top tier consisting of the six or seven best teams in America, Syracuse definitely belongs. But if you're looking for a strong bet to win a national championship, I'm skeptical. Syracuse is going to beat a lot of teams and it is capable of getting to a Final Four, but right now its most talented players are the younger guys, and that's usually not a championship formula. Syracuse hasn't been to the Elite Eight since it won a title in 2003. I like this team to get that far -- but no further.