Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 5 Syracuse (Men)
Syracuse is known for its firepower offense, but what will it look like in 2016 without Kevin Rice, Randy Staats and Nicky Galasso?
The lone returning attackman Dylan Donahue is expected to take the reins, FOGO Ben Williams could ignite an even bigger spark at X this spring and goalie Warren Hill should remain strong between the pipes. But can the offense revamp in time for when it matters most?
Syracuse at a Glance
2015 Record: 13-3
3 Big Things
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
The Orange scraped by in spite of its paltry faceoff game for the early years of this decade, but that changed with the arrival of Holy Cross transfer Ben Williams. The all-ACC selection almost single-handedly changed Syracuse's faceoff fortunes, and his presence is going to provide a welcome cushion to an offense that will work in several players into expanded or entirely new roles this spring.
1. Who plays on offense is anyone's guess.
The projected starters on offense — and especially in the midfield — are a complete dart throw at this point. Not even Desko has a firm sense of who might start when the Orange open the season Feb. 13. "That's what we're looking for, some breakout guys," he said. "A lot of guys are really all in the mix and no one separated themselves from the rest of the group." In a survival-of-the-fittest sort of program like Syracuse, though, whoever emerges is likely to be productive. A few names not mentioned above worth remembering: Derek DeJoe, a veteran of the man-up unit, and Brown transfer Nick Piroli, who had 23 goals and seven assists last season.
2. Warren Hill is an upgrade in the goal.
It's unfair to pin all of Syracuse's defensive issues on its goalies. At the same time, it couldn't reliably ask a goalie to carry a defense since John Galloway graduated. That might change with Warren Hill in the cage. "Warren right now has separated himself in the save department," Desko said. "He has the ability to frustrate the other team. He's making great one-on-one saves." Hill was the starting goalie for the Iroquois Nationals in the 2014 world championships and boasted a .733 save percentage two years ago at Onondaga Community College.
3. Ben Williams might be even more dangerous this year.
The Holy Cross transfer's arrival last year was a game-changer for the Orange, which no longer had to hope it could salvage even half of its faceoffs. Williams scored three times last year, but Desko believes he could provide even more help beyond claiming possession this spring. "He's worked on his offensive and defensive skills," Desko said. "He's a very good athlete to begin with. He's not the stereotypical FOGO who maybe can't run or as a result of athletic ability can't play offense or defense." Williams won 67.4 percent of his faceoffs a year ago.
Warren Hill (Sr.)
* returning starters
The lone returning starter on offense is coming off a 50-goal season, with 15 of them coming in man-up situations. Plenty will be asked of Donahue this season as the Orange sorts out its many lineup questions on offense, and while it's plausible he doesn't match his numbers from last year simply because he's the most known quantity in the Syracuse offense he will be pivotal to Syracuse's success.
The UMass transfer has a splendid track record, having won CAA Rookie of the Year two seasons ago while scoring 29 goals and then managing 22 goals and 20 assists last year for the Minutemen. With all the vacancies on the Syracuse offense, the Orange are bound to find a place for a player of his experience level this season.
Mellen's hardly an anonymous recruit, but he has a chance to make an impact on a fairly veteran unit as a freshman. At 5-foot-9 and 177 pounds, the West Genesee product has the speed to keep up with some of the smaller, more dangerous attackman in the game.
Biggest Question Mark
Coming out of the fall, not much is fully settled for an offense that lost five starters (including Tewaaraton finalist Kevin Rice). "If you're a midfielder or attackman, looking at who's graduated, the door's wide open," coach John Desko said. "If you want to play midfield or attack at Syracuse, then step up."
After transferring from Holy Cross last year, Ben Williams became a gamechanger for the Orange at X, winning 67.4 percent of his faceoffs, and is expected to crank it up one more notch in 2016. (Rich Barnes)
What rival coaches say about the Orange
"They graduated a ton of talent that will be missed. Although they'll be young, Donahue should be able to orchestrate that offense at a high level. Warren Hill may be the biggest X-factor for them with his ability to steal saves."
"This team lost a ton but still has a pretty good nucleus especially with Williams at the faceoff X. Word out of the north is that Warren Hill is ready to be a star in the cage for this team. Dylan Donahue may be one of the most underrated lacrosse players in the country and don't think he will take much off a step back without Rice next to him."
"Similar to UNC on offense. Hill in the goal may be the key. He could win them some games while offense figures it out."
"After a decimating graduation hit, Desko and Rogers went to the waiver wire, plucking up Nick Mariano, one of the best attackmen in the nation, as well as Nick Piroli. Dylan Donahue will miss Rice and Co., but the aforementioned additions and the existing stable of 55 athletes will produce offense in big gulps. Mullins on the defensive end is about as good as it gets when it comes to shutting down the opponent's best attackman. Yes, this team is young. But they will improve as the year goes on because that is what happens at Syracuse every year seemingly for the past 33 years. I am excited for Warren Hill to have his shot this spring in the cage."
"Syracuse lost a lot, but they are always Syracuse."
"Guys are going to show up. Guys are going to step into roles where you'll say 'Hey, I forgot about that guy, he's at Syracuse.' But he just had to wait his turn because they're so talented. John Desko gets the most out of his players. The kids love going to Syracuse and love playing for coach and his staff. There will be a whole new cast of characters that people will be talking about at midseason for All-American teams."
"Syracuse will be new. New faces at the offensive end. I think they graduated five guys of their first six, but they're always loaded. The second midfield will bump down to attack. They have great talent and are a fast, athletic bunch defensively. They have a new goalie and their defense is sound. Once they figure out who they are, I think they'll be where they need to be when ACC games arrive."
"For them, there's some real question marks. ... For Syracuse, it's turning the page and redefining themselves a little bit. You don't replace Rice and Lecky and Schoonmaker and all those guys without noticing it. They have some things to sort out. We all know there's a lot of talent in upstate New York. At the same time, it's a team that needs to begin to redefine itself offensively."
"I think Syracuse is in a similar boat that we're in. They didn't lose one player but they lost a number of players who've been playing together for a couple years. I think when they step on the field for their first game and they're starting seven or eight out of 10 will be brand new starters. I think they'll be fine. Like us, it'll take a little bit of time to get an identity and figure out who are their go-to guys and who they can rely on. Certainly, they're very talented. I think with Warren in the goal, he had a good fall. Coming off the World Game experiences, he's a very good goaltender. They're certainly going to be right in the mix. I don't see any reason why they're going to take a step backwards."
Career starts at Syracuse players for offensive players on the roster not named Dylan Donahue. Tim Barber (three starts) and Jordan Evans (one) are the only other offensive players who boast starting experience with the Orange.
March 4 at Virginia
Not that Albany or Army will be pushovers (quite the contrary), but the Orange's first game in March also is the ACC opener and the first time a team with an inexperienced offense and a defense that was vulnerable against elite competition goes on the road this season. Consider this a bellwether for a stretch of four road trips in five games that includes visits to Johns Hopkins, Duke and Cornell.
It seems a bit repetitive, but the Orange really are difficult to sort out at this stage at the personnel level. Syracuse is almost always potent offensively, and it almost certainly will find a way to have an explosive attack again this year. But how it will get there without recent mainstays like Kevin Rice, Randy Staats and Nicky Galasso is a mystery.
If Williams is dominant again and Hill provides some stellar play between the pipes, the offense will be afforded some time to develop. This could be a year Desko mixes and matches offensive personnel, but bank on Syracuse being dangerous when it counts.
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