It is difficult to believe, but it has been more than 10 years since Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to their first National Championship. Unfortunately, for Syracuse fans, it was his only season in upstate New York. After winning a title, he took his talents to the NBA where he became the 3rd overall pick in the June 2003 draft. No one can fault Anthony for leaving early considering the money that he’s made over the past decade, but I thought it would be interesting to talk about how Syracuse might have fared if he had stuck around. Could the Orangemen have had a dynasty on their hands, or was this just a one-time event.
In order not to go Bill Simmons on you and write a 9,000 word article, the discussion will revolve around comparing the make-up of the Syracuse team from each year, plus Anthony, and the top couple teams that dominated the college basketball landscape during those seasons.
If Carmelo Anthony stays, the Orangemen only would have lost one starter from their title team, Kueth Duany. Gerry McNamara, Billy Edelin, Hakim Warrick, Josh Pace, and Craig Forth all returned to defend their title. They would have retained about 85-90% of their offense from the previous season had Melo stayed. Between McNamara, Anthony, and Warrick, Syracuse would have had 3 All-Americans on their team.
Despite their potent offense, they did have a few drawbacks. One, their bench players were fairly young and were not contributors. Two, no one other than McNamara or Anthony could hit over 70% from the FT line. Third, Billy Edelin, who would have had to step up off of the bench, got kicked off of the team halfway through the season. Without Anthony, Syracuse went 23-8 (11-5, Big East) advancing to the Sweet 16. Insert Anthony into the lineup, and they likely only lose perhaps 3 games at most in the regular season.
During that season, UConn and Duke were the prohibitive favorites to win it all. They would likely have given Syracuse all they could handle in a run to the title. Duke had plenty of talent in their own right with Shelden Williams, Luol Deng, Chris Duhon, J.J. Reddick, and Daniel Ewing, but for as good as they were, they did not have a Carmelo Anthony type of player to go to in the clutch. That leaves UConn.
The Huskies were a force inside. Josh Boone, Charlie Villaneuva, Hilton Armstrong, and Emeka Okafor inside would have presented some major problems. In addition to that front court, Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown were scorers from the outside. They had six NBA first round picks on that team. UConn and Syracuse actually split the season series in 2003-2004 with Syracuse winning at home on Senior Day, but the year prior UConn dominated them both times. On a neutral court, even if Melo stays, I do not think they would have beaten UConn. The Huskies just had too much talent inside.
Syracuse would have entered this season with McNamara, Anthony, and Warrick, again, as All-Americans. Without Melo the Orangemen went 27-7 (11-5, Big East) and started the season 20-1 before wearing out down the stretch. Their bench was still fairly thin and they still couldn’t hit their FTs. Billy Edelin didn’t pan out either and never played for the Orangemen again after February. McNamara and Warrick were a two man team that started to fall off two thirds of the way through the season losing 5 of their last 9 in the regular season, then winning the Big East Tournament, and finally getting bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Taylor Coppenrath and Vermont. However, adding Anthony to the mix would certainly make them a title favorite. Add an additional 20 PPG from Anthony over his replacement and they do not get worn out and lose their 5 of their last 9 regular season games. Again, they likely go 32-2 with Pitt and UConn giving them some difficult tests and they get a number 1 seed in the NCAAs.
In 2005, it really came down to Illinois, North Carolina, and then everyone else. Illinois manhandled everyone that season. They started the season 29-0 before losing the last game of the regular season on the road at Ohio St. They, then, ran through the Big Ten tourney and beat Arizona in OT in the Elite Eight despite being down 13 with 4 minutes to go. They had four future NBA players including Deron Williams, shot 48% from the floor and 40% from beyond the arc, and over 70% as a team from the FT line as a team.
North Carolina was dominant well. They had five McDonalds All-Americans on their roster and four players taken in the first 14 picks of the NBA draft in 2005. UNC was very well-balanced, with a strong presence on the boards, along with good guard play from Ray Felton, and a solid bench.
In the end, it would be difficult to make a case for Syracuse to beat either of these teams. Although they would have been a top 3 team, they couldn’t beat Illinois or UNC for a title. Their defense just was not good enough and their bench was not deep enough. Carmelo doesn’t play defense, and that is precisely what they would have needed to beat these teams.
Carmelo Anthony’s senior campaign would likely led to many awards had he stayed all four seasons. My guess is that he would have won the Naismith Award and been a First Team All American. However, it would have taken a strong effort by Melo on both ends of the floor for Syracuse to capture a title.
As a senior, McNamara continued to play well, as he had his entire career. Freshman Eric Devendorf began to take off and Demetris Nichols was finally starting to play well until he disappeared halfway through the season. Defensively, they were better, especially on the boards, but they still could not shoot FTs well. They finished 23-12 overall (7-9, Big East). This was the first team that ever lost 4 straight games under Jim Boeheim and only the second time under Boeheim they finished below .500 in the league. Judging on those facts alone, you would not think this team was remotely a title contender. However, even without him there were flashes of greatness. Syracuse pulled off one of the best four day runs in the Big East tournament winning it all as a 9 seed, thanks in large part thanks to McNamara going unconscious in MSG. It just took time for them to learn to play with one another.
I believe that if Anthony makes it to his senior season, Syracuse doesn’t play half of the season trying to find their identity. Players know their roles and would not lose focus. They started the year 15-2. If they have that go-to scorer, McNamara would not have had to carry such a load and they don’t lose in the first round of the NCAA. The field was so wide open that season, they had just as good a chance to win it all as anyone.
Florida and UCLA met in the title game in 2006. Florida had a potent offense that could pass and shoot the three very well. They were not a great rebounding team, but played solid scoring defense, holding all of their NCAA tournament opponents under 60 points with one exception. UCLA was an extremely young team who had 13 players in their roster that were either freshman or sophomores. They were undoubtedly talented and played in many close games, but I don’t believe they could have denied two senior All-Americans. Carmelo was already averaging 27 PPG in the NBA by the time he was 21. He would not be stopped by Josh Shipp or anyone else on that team.
Florida would certainly be the more difficult team to handle. I think Syracuse could give them all they could handle, but Al Horford, Joakim Noah, and Corey Brewer would have given Syracuse too many problems with their size inside like UConn would have a few seasons earlier. There is no doubt in my mind Anthony could score 40 points and keep Syracuse in the game, but they just would not have the depth to win. If there was one team that could have beaten them, it would have been Florida. I don’t think that Devendorf would have played much until after Anthony left and Nichols was too inconsistent to be depended upon to score. McNamara, although a ferocious competitor, could be handled by a bigger guard, which UF had. Regardless, it would be pretty spectacular to see one player like Anthony raise a teams win total by 10-12 games in one season.
Overall, having Carmelo Anthony around for four seasons would have made for a title run every season for the Orangemen. I would imagine if he stays they probably do not lose more than 15 games during his entire time there. That is incredibly impressive considering they lost five games his freshman season. However, despite that fact, there always appeared to be that one team that would have likely beat them for the National Title. Although Melo was, and still is, a fantastic player, not even his talents alone would be enough to create a championship dynasty at Syracuse.