Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had coached more than 1,000 games over 30 seasons, led a team to a national championship and was there at the formation of the Big East conference.
But in all of his years of meandering the sideline, not once had he ever done what he was about to do.
Like he had done so many times in the past, Boeheim motioned to the bench, and one of his players sprung up from his seat, ripped off his warm-ups, and entered the game. Taken out of context, there was nothing particularly strange or out of the ordinary.
So what was so special about this mundane, routine maneuver?
Well, the player that Boeheim had just signaled for was walk-on Justin Thomas.
Certainly, Boeheim has played walk-ons before. Boeheim was himself a walk-on before he went on to become the captain of Syracuse’s 1966 basketball team. But walk-ons are supposed to be used in one situation: Lopsided early-season games.
But this game was neither a blowout nor was it November.
This was a Big East game, and the game was far from out of hand.
Syracuse was clinging to a single-digit lead in the first half against Big East foe Providence on January 27, 2008. At the time, the Orange was one game below .500 in conference play and in desperate need of a win.
And yet there Thomas was, dribbling the ball across the timeline, a walk-on playing the most critical moments of his college career with Syracuse’s post-season hopes hanging in the balance.
“We’ve never played walk-ons here,” Boeheim said after a 71-64 win. “We’ve always had enough guys.”
Only a cascade of calamities would allow Thomas into such a game. Thomas was seventh on the depth chart with six scholarship players ahead of him, and among the six were two McDonald’s All Americans.
And then the impossible happened: Both Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins blew out their knees. Josh Wright quit the team. Scoop Jardine was suspended.
Said Boeheim of his walk-ons: “They’re going to play now.”
Indeed they did.
Thomas would go on to play three minutes of that game, an unheard of number considering they were such key minutes. But that, in a microcosm, was the story of Syracuse’s 2007-08 season.
With an injury-ravaged lineup, Syracuse limped through a 21-14 (9-9 Big East) season, while being eliminated by Massachusetts in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. It was certainly an up-and-down season, one Boeheim will try to put behind him as the 2008-09 season approaches.
Syracuse returns every player from last year, with the exception of Donte Greene. Greene, who lead the Orange in scoring at 17.7 points per game last year, was the first freshman since Carmelo Anthony to lead the Orange in scoring. Still, his decision to leave was a curious one, considering he slipped all the way from a possible lottery pick to the 28th pick in the first round.
While Greene’s return would’ve cemented the Orange as one of the teams to beat in the Big East, Syracuse still has more than enough offensive firepower and, barring the injury situation of last season, the depth to make a return to the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse is welcoming the return of redshirt juniors Rautins and Devendorf while dealing with the news that sophomore Scoop Jardine will likely miss the season with a leg injury.
Rautins, who tore his ACL last summer while playing for Team Canada, appeared at full strength this summer. Over the past summer, Rautins was selected to the Senior Men’s National Team, and appeared in all three of the 2008 FIBA Olympic Qualfiers, as well as an exhibition against Team USA.
Certainly, everyone knows that Rautins is lethal from downtown, but Rautins also displayed an ability to play point guard. The guard has also put on about 20 points of muscle since his last game with the Orange, and now tops the scales at 205 pounds.
As for Devendorf, he was leading Syracuse in scoring 10 games into last season, averaging 17.0 points and 3.9 assists per game. However, he would be sidelined the rest of the season after tearing his ACL against East Tennessee State.
Devendorf appears healthy now, and Syracuse should have the benefit of its best slasher.
“Certainly from an offensive point of view, even though you lose Donte Greene, whose main asset was shooting from the perimeter, those shots will now be taken by Andy and Eric,” Boeheim said. “We’ll get a higher return percentage-wise from those guys taking those shots.
Perhaps the one silver lining of Devendorf and Rautins missing the season was that it allowed freshman Jonny Flynn to log considerable time on the court.
Flynn was as good as advertised, playing virtually every minute of every game. He was impressive on both ends of the floor, finishing with averages of 15.7 points and 5.3 assists per game, and a share of the Big East Rookie of the Year honors.
What’s even scarier for opponents – Flynn is one year old, and wiser.
“My game has improved a lot,” Flynn said. “I matured a lot over the past year from all the things that happened and because of the people around me. … I’m looking for a big year.”
With Rautins and Devendorf healthy, it seems that Boeheim’s biggest problem will be chemistry and finding all of his guards ample playing time. But given last year, this is a problem that Boeheim is more than happy to have.
Still, it was revealed recently that Jardine would likely miss the season after suffering a stress fracture in his leg in the spring. Jardine will red-shirt the season, and gain an extra year of eligibility in the process.
“It it is just going to be a year of patience,” Jardine said. “I’ll be able to come back better next year and plus I get another year of school so that is even better. That’s a great thing.”
With Greene out of the picture, Boeheim has several options to replace him.
Certainly Paul Harris will be in the starting lineup, although it’s unclear whether Boeheim will use him as a guard or as a forward. Harris saw time at both positions last year, and thrived as a wing, leading Syracuse in rebounding at 8.2 boards per game.
Harris can do it all, and showed that he’s starting to develop a consistent jumper from midrange.
“Paul Harris had a good year last year, but I expect him and he expects himself to do more,” Boeheim said. “His shooting is much better and he’s now at the point where he can dominate some games and situations.”
As for the other forward position, Boeheim figures to go with Krisof Ongenaet, who joined the starting lineup in February. Ongenaet, the team’s lone senior, was solid in the zone and provided good interior rebounding, but wasn’t much of an offensive factor.
“He’s a hustle guy” Boeheim said. “He gets things down, gets rebounds and gives us some toughness.”
Boeheim can also choose from part-time center Rick Jackson and freshmen Mookie Jones and Kris Joseph.
Jackson saw time at both center and power forward, and showed flashes of being an excellent shotblocker. Meanwhile, of the incoming class, Jones figures to see the most court time. Jones is a typical Boeheim recruit for the zone, with excellent athleticism and a rangy athletic frame.
“Mookie Jones can play the two or the three and Kris Joseph can play the three or four,” Boeheim said. “We obviously have a lot more depth than last year. There’s no question that we got worn down in some situations and in some games and that shouldn’t happen this year.”
Arinze Onuaku established himself as one of the best centers in the Big East last season, averaging 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Onuaku displayed a polished inside game, and was a solid anchor in the 2-3 zone.
The center will only be helped by the return of Rautins and Devendorf.
“When the double comes, I will be able to kick it to them for the three,” Onuaku said. “If no double comes, then I will be able to take my man one-on-one, so it is a great asset to have.”
The aforementioned Jackson provides an excellent backup, while Sean Williams, who redshirted last season, can help inside, as well.
Assuming everyone stays healthy, although, after last season, there are certainly no guarantees, Syracuse figures to be a top team in the Big East. Boeheim doesn’t lack from scoring options, and last year’s freshman class has plenty of experience now.
Look for Syracuse to return to the NCAA tournament this year, and make it out of the first round for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
Said Boeheim of making the NCAA Tournament: “It’s important for us to have a great year, and that’s the only way you can have a great year.”
This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Juice.