As Syracuse head coach Adrian Autry stood at the podium Friday, he seemed to still have some first-year jitters when it came to addressing the media.
“It is weird,” Syracuse basketball coach Adrian Autry said when asked how he felt being front and center. “This is the loudest and clearest this speaker has ever been… I’m [still] getting used to stepping in and speaking on behalf of the program.”
While public speaking may still be on his list of “things to improve on” (for him, anyway, he sounded fine to me), we knew going into this season that Autry was seemingly the perfect fit for the job.
Jim Boeheim was Autry’s coach back in the 90s, but also his mentor since 2010 when he joined the Syracuse basketball coaching staff. “Coach Red” is an outstanding recruiter, he’s known for his developmental skills, and he’s in tune with the culture in Salt City. If there was a perfect candidate to replace the great coach Boeheim, Adrian Autry certainly makes a strong case.
I ended up next to the newly minted head coach shortly after he ended the press conference and got a chance to speak with him candidly. Autry was very excited about this year’s Orange and about getting the chance to lead them. But what specifically was he excited about?
Here are three things you should know about the 2023-24 Syracuse Orange.
Depth in the backcourt
Judah Mintz is definitely the most recognizable name on this Syracuse basketball roster to anyone who follows the ACC.
Mintz shined as a freshman, finishing the season with 16.3 PPG, was the conference leader in steals, and was an All-ACC Honorable Mention. He’ll reprise his role of starting point guard but Syracuse loses Joe Girard III, the team’s two-guard and leading scorer. This is where Autry has already showcased his recruiting abilities in the transfer portal.
Syracuse has three guards coming in that you’ll want to keep an eye on – JJ Starling, Kyle Cuffe, Jr., and Chance Westry.
Starling, a Notre Dame transfer, is a Central New York native and has known coach Autry since he was in grade school. On the court, he was an All-ACC Freshman Team selection, finishing with 11.2 PPG on a struggling Irish team.
Starling now gets the chance to represent his hometown team, and he says he didn’t have to be sold on the idea.
“It feels amazing having this opportunity. I’m beyond blessed,” Starling said with a grin. “I think I look good in white and orange.”
Starling is the front-runner to share the backcourt with Mintz, making up what could be one of the nation’s best guard tandems. When those two are off the court, the Orange don’t slow down. Kyle Cuffe, Jr. and Chance Westry add a ton of much-needed depth to this lineup.
Cuffe had his season with Kansas cut short last year with an MCL/PCL tear in November, but he knows what it takes to win. He redshirted during the 2021-22 season when the Jayhawks won the National Championship, getting a chance to learn from Bill Self and practice alongside future NBA draftees like Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun.
Cuffe brings an effective three-point shot to ‘Cuse, as well as a hunger for redemption.
“I feel like things would’ve been different if I didn’t get hurt last year,” Cuffe said. “Everything happens for a reason… I need to leave it all out on the floor this time.”
Westry also had some injury trouble during his time at Auburn, but one thing we know for sure is that he can ball. Westry was a four-star recruit in 2022, ranking 39th in the class, and was the number 2 prospect in the state of Arizona.
Cuffe and the other guards spoke highly of Westry, and he echoed their sentiments.
“It takes a lot of pressure off because we can all pretty much do the same things,” Westry said. “We can compete with anyone in the country.”
The Orange have four elite guards that will all see minutes, not to mention sophomore Quadir Copeland who was voted most-improved amongst his teammates. If they can gel (and from everything I’m hearing, they HAVE), this Syracuse squad is going to be a nightmare for opposing backcourts.
The bigs are BIG
Mounir Hima returns for his junior year looking to assume a bigger role for the Orange in 2023-24. The 6-11 center averaged just 7.4 minutes last year behind Jesse Edwards, who averaged a double-double and was the conference’s leading shot-blocker. Now Edwards is off to West Virginia… and coach Autry brought in some BIG replacements.
Autry landed 2023 recruit William Patterson in February, a 7-2 product from Brooklyn who chose Syracuse over TCU and Oklahoma State. Patterson fits the Rudy Gobert mold, a tall and lanky shot-blocker who shows promise around the rim. That wasn’t Autry’s biggest commitment though, both metaphorically and literally.
Florida State center Naheem McLeod stayed in-conference and will be wearing Orange this winter. All 7-4 of McLeod is expected to continue his dominance protecting the rim; he finished 6th in the ACC with just under 1.2 blocks per game. He is also the tallest player to ever put on the Syracuse uniform.
McLeod is the most intriguing addition to this new Syracuse team. Last year for the Seminoles, McLeod was listed at 248 pounds. This year Syracuse lists him at 265, and you can tell by the size of his arms. The big man looked good in the limited minutes he got last year, and if he has increased strength this year he’s going to be an issue.
Autry thinks so, anyway.
“A lot of times when you have someone of that size you question [if they can] change ends of the floor, you question their mobility laterally,” said Autry. “He can do all of that very well… He has a great feel for the game on both ends of the floor.”
Another benefit to the addition of McLeod is practice.
Syracuse is one of seven ACC teams with a 7-footer, but they’re one of just three teams with multiple giants on the roster (Duke has three, but would you expect any different?). McLeod and Patterson say it gets competitive in practice when the two go at it. Both love playing defense, blocking each other’s shots in scrimmages and drills.
Patterson also said that McLeod has been somewhat of a mentor, something McLeod takes pride in.
“I call him ‘My Rook’,” said McLeod, jokingly. “I didn’t have a 7-footer to play against last year. He’s gotten me better, too.”
The size is a major plus. As it stands right now, the position battle is between McLeod and Hima. Patterson will likely have to wait his turn, but if your third option is 7-2 I think any coach would be thrilled.
Syracuse will be playing a different brand of basketball…
It’s the question everyone has been asking: What will the defense look like this year? Boeheim made the 2-3 defense famous. It’s confusing, and when done properly it can cripple a one-dimensional team. But modern offenses are starting to figure it out.
In December, Syracuse traveled to South Bend to take on Notre Dame in Mike Brey’s final year as head coach. Brey and Boeheim had faced off 28 times before that meeting, so Brey was very familiar with the 2-3.
Brey’s Fighting Irish picked apart the Orange defense by moving the ball quickly around the perimeter and shifting the defenders. To deliver the kill-shot they would dump it inside and kick it back out to the wing, resulting in 11 ND three-pointers.
The Irish would lose this game by just a single point, but it was scary to think that a Notre Dame team that finished 11-21 could have such success against one of college basketball’s greatest coaches.
Autry kept it short and sweet: “We’ll play man-to-man.”
A shock to anyone looking from the outside, but the change just makes sense. Autry said this is the deepest a Syracuse team has been in years. What’s more: It’s one of the most athletic.
Coach Boeheim recruited extremely well to find players to fit in with his system for half a century, but the game has changed. There is an extreme emphasis on spreading the floor with the three-point shot (you can thank Steph Curry for that). The 2-3 is great against a team that primarily scores inside, but it has its flaws on the perimeter if an opposing coach schemes for it. The Orange will likely use the 2-3 for a new look every now and then, but this change is a breath of fresh air for Syracuse fans.
On offense, Autry says this team will play fast. Mintz and Starling are elite around the rim, as are McLeod and forward Benny Williams. Cuffe, Westry, and forward Chris Bell all show promise from beyond the arc, and they’ll see opportunities with Mintz and Starling dishing the rock.
Forward Benny Williams is looking primed for a breakout season Now that Autry has changed the dynamic of the team, we could see Williams get a ton of opportunities that he did not get in years past. The 6-9 junior started 24 games for the Orange last season, finishing with 7.2 PPG and 4.1 boards. The fact that we haven’t discussed him until now tells you just how deep this team is.
There are also rumors of Syracuse running a good amount of small ball with sophomore Maliq Brown at center. Brown does a little bit of everything on both sides of the ball. Seeing a lineup of Mintz, Starling, Bell, Williams, and Brown is an interesting idea, especially if they can push the pace as well as Autry hopes.
How the offense will run stylistically is still being kept under wraps, but there’s a ton of excitement for the new-look Orange.
With Syracuse’s season opener against New Hampshire less than a month away, Central New York is buzzing. Coach Autry has two exhibition games over the next three weeks to get his team ready. It’s too early to tell, but don’t be surprised if the Orange are back in the national spotlight when March rolls around.