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Addition of LeRon Ellis Has Syracuse Thinking About Final Four

Associated Press

How excited are people around Syracuse University about the prospect of LeRon Ellis teaming next season with player-of-the-year candidate Derrick Coleman?

One local newspaper columnist wondered last week, only half in jest, how many hotel rooms Syracuse faithful should reserve now in Denver, site of next year’s Final Four.

“I don’t know if there is a better frontcourt in America,” said Jim Calhoun, coach of Big East rival Connecticut. “In fact, I know there isn’t a better frontcourt in America.”

“That’s just an unbelievable amount of talent for one team,” added ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale of Syracuse’s frontcourt. “It’s unfair to the other teams. They’ve just got so much talent.”

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Ellis, the former Mater Dei High School star, announced last week that he will transfer to Syracuse from Kentucky, where the basketball program has been placed on probation. Ellis, a 6-foot-10, 235-pounder who will be eligible to play immediately this fall as a junior, picked the Orangemen over UCLA, Nevada Las Vegas and St. John’s.

Among Ellis’ other talented teammates at Syracuse will be high-scoring and high-flying Steve Thompson (6-4) and 6-9 Billy Owens, whose name appeared on virtually everyone’s all-freshman team last season.

Sophomores Richard Manning and Dave Siock and freshman Conrad McRae, all 6-10, provide depth in the frontcourt.

“LeRon’s a terrifically talented kid,” Calhoun said. “It gives them another outstanding player, which is what they don’t need, as far as the rest of us are concerned.”

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Coleman (6-10) finished among the top five nationally in rebounding and blocked shots last season playing primarily as a center. He says he doesn’t care who plays center and who plays forward next season.

“This front line can be the best in college basketball in a long, long time. I’ll do whatever they want me to do. Whatever position LeRon doesn’t play, I’ll play,” Coleman said.

It only took a few hours after Ellis’ announcement last week for the Syracuse faithful to begin talking about a return to the Final Four, where the Orangemen lost to Indiana on a last-second shot in 1987.

“If they don’t win the national championship this year, they’ll never do it,” said Mickey Gonzales, a cashier at a campus pizzeria.

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“This means Final Four resurrection for (Coach) Jim Boeheim,” Syracuse senior Rodney Grey said.

Ellis said the chance of winning a national title was among the principal reasons for picking Syracuse.

“It’s everybody’s goal to win the NCAA title,” said Ellis, the son of former National Basketball Assn. player Leroy Ellis. “Syracuse has an excellent chance. I think if I come in and play hard, I can help them out.”

Meanwhile, Boeheim and assistant Bernie Fine are trying to dispel talk of an NCAA championship--for now.

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“We don’t care what other people expect. We know where we should be. We’ll have to wait and see,” Fine said.

One transformation that will take place at Syracuse is the shifting of Thompson and Owens from forward positions to guard slots, said Boeheim.

Because of the graduation of all-time NCAA assist leader Sherman Douglas, a Miami Heat draftee, and the transfer of Syracuse’s other 1988-89 starter at guard, Matt Roe, Boeheim said he already had decided to move Owens and Thompson to the vacant guard positions.

But the addition of Ellis gives Boeheim more flexibility in his lineups. He could even play even four 6-10 players at one time, with the versatile Coleman handling point guard.

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“I think we’ll have a lot better depth and a lot of guys capable of playing different positions,” Boeheim said.

“We won’t have a point guard in the traditional sense. We’ve played with a big lineup before, although this one will be bigger than usual. These guys aren’t normal big guys.”

CBS Sports basketball analyst Billy Packer agreed that not having a true point guard isn’t going to hurt Syracuse.

“The matchup becomes the other team’s problem,” Packer said. “You can get it up there (the ball from backcourt to frontcourt) any way you can get it up there. You throw it over everybody. Everybody can throw the ball. Everybody can catch the ball. Why dribble it?”

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Even if Syracuse goes with an NBA-sized lineup, it won’t abandon the running game that led to a 30-8 record last season and a spot in the round of eight in the NCAA tournament, Boeheim said.

“LeRon runs the court extremely well. I think Derrick Coleman and him are probably the two best running big guys in the country,” he said.


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