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John Kekis | The Associated Press | October 22, 2013

Syracuse ready for new challenge

Syracuse Jim Boeheim

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Jim Boeheim is about to embark on territory he’s only visited one other time in his long tenure at Syracuse — playing in a new conference.

He and the Orange have officially walked away from the Big East — and those heated rivalries — and entered the Atlantic Coast Conference, where Duke will become the new Georgetown on the schedule.

“It’s a good conference with tough teams,” Boeheim said. “It’s the same as it’s always been — difficult. I think it’s a little different, but we’ve been preparing for this for so long. This has been a two-year process.”

Last year, Syracuse made its fourth appearance in the Final Four since Boeheim took over in 1976. The Orange finished 30-10 after a heart-wrenching loss to Michigan in the national semifinals.

Despite losing three starters — guard Brandon Triche and sharpshooting forward James Southerland graduated, while point guard Michael Carter-Williams left early for the NBA — Syracuse has reloaded and is ready to challenge again.

The Orange are picked to finish second to Duke in the ACC preseason poll, as Boeheim, 68, enters his 38th season.

“Obviously, whenever you lose three starters, that’s a concern,” said Boeheim, whose 920 career wins rank second only to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. “We have guys who played, we have veterans, but we’re very young in the backcourt losing the two starters. That’s a big area we’ve been working on. We have to really bring the backcourt along.”

Forward C.J. Fair, the team’s leading scorer last season and preseason ACC player of the year, returns for his senior year along with classmate Baye Moussa Keita, who’s demonstrated a deft shooting touch in practice. Boeheim said forward Jerami Grant was making great progress, and he really likes his freshmen — Tyler Ennis, Tyler Roberson, B.J. Johnson and Ron Patterson.

Ennis is expected to take over at the point.

“He’s a solid player. He’s a freshman, so he’s going to have a learning curve,” Boeheim said. “He’s a smart player. He understands the game, and I think he’ll be fine stepping into the role.”

The Orange also have guards Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, who sat out last season after transferring from Duke. Both are ready to assume bigger roles.

Boeheim says he’s expecting a lot from Keita, Dajuan Coleman, and Rakeem Christmas. Coleman is healthy again after missing eight games with a knee injury last season and has returned in better shape with an improved game down low.

“Our frontcourt is very experienced, very physical. We have good depth there,” Boeheim said. “We have some good young players in the front line, so I think overall the balance is very good.”

Syracuse and Georgetown, charter members of the Big East when it was formed in 1979, are working on a deal that will continue their long and storied rivalry. In the meantime, since the Orange faithful won’t have the Hoyas to razz — Georgetown remains in the Big East and is not on this year’s schedule — they’re ready for something new. Ticket sales are soaring in anticipation of home games against Duke and North Carolina in the new year.

Expect those rivalries to be as heated as any.

“Any time you’re in a league, there’s always going to be fierce rivalries because you’re all competing for something that everybody wants,” Boeheim said. “I think it’ll be very competitive right away, without question. Whoever’s at the top, whoever’s playing well, those are going to be the big games. That’s the way it always is.”

In this day and age, dreams of making a Final Four aren’t so far-fetched for a lot of teams, and the Orange, who open the season Nov. 8 vs. Cornell, will be thinking about another run there.

“The college basketball landscape has changed,” Boeheim said. “Any team that’s in the top 20 can go to the Final Four. Any team in the top 30, probably. We’re one of those teams. The ACC’s wide open. There’s a lot of good teams.

“It’ll be an interesting year.”

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