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October 24, 2008

Preseason story line No. 18: Orange outlook

MORE: Will Syracuse return to the NCAA Tournament?

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 story lines for the 2008-09 season and will be revealing one daily. At No. 18, we look at Syracuse - which has missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.

No player may have been more exhausted by the end of last season than Syracuse sophomore point guard Jonny Flynn and Flynn didn't even play in the NCAA tournament.

That's because Flynn averaged a remarkable 39.2 minutes per game in Big East play. With Syracuse handicapped by season-ending knee injuries to two starting guards, Flynn played the full 40 minutes in 10 of the 13 games leading up to the NIT. He also played all 45 minutes of an overtime game against Georgetown. He played a possible 523 of 525 minutes during the grueling stretch.

"There were times I would wake up last season and feel like I was 80 years old," Flynn said.

Flynn should feel more like the 19-year-old he is this year.

Junior guards Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins return from ACL tears and should provide a big lift for a program that returns four starters from a team that missed the NCAA tournament for the second season in a row.

Devendorf is one of the top guards in the Big East, having averaged 14.8 points and 4.1 assists in 2006-07. Last season, Devendorf was averaging a team-high 17 points before being lost to injury in the 10th game.

Rautins, who missed the whole season, is a 3-point specialist. In 2006-07, he started 20 games and made a team-high 67 3-pointers.

Devendorf and Rautins join a team that returns four starters, and the hope is that group can keep one of college basketball's most tradition-rich programs from escaping a three-year NCAA tournament drought. The Orange also narrowly missed out an NCAA bid in 2007 despite a 10-6 league record.

Jim Boeheim, who has been Syracuse's coach since 1976-77, has never gone three consecutive seasons without taking the Orange to the NCAAs. In fact, this is only the second time he has gone back-to-back seasons without going to the Big Dance; the other was 1981 and '82.

"We really missed (Devendorf and Rautins)," Boeheim said. "But the younger guys got a chance to get more experience. I think we are better."

All of Flynn's experience paid off. He ranked fifth in the league in assists (4.8 apg), sixth in scoring (16.8 ppg) and posted a respectable 1.8-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (ranked eighth). The league's coaches voted Flynn the co-Big East Rookie of the Year along with Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair.

"It was also good to play so much," Flynn said. "I was forced to learn on the fly. A lot of freshmen make mistakes and get taken out. I had to play through it."

The one starter the Orange did lose is big. Forward Donte Greene chose to enter the NBA draft after a stellar freshman campaign he led the team in scoring at 17.7 points per game and was second in rebounding at 7.2 per game and was taken with the 28th pick.

"You can't replace a guy who can score 20 points and grab eight rebounds in any game," Flynn said. "But we are going to lose players every year. We are prepared for it."

Syracuse's biggest concern could be the depth of the Big East. The league has eight teams in the Rivals.com preseason top 25; Syracuse is 32nd. The Orange were picked eighth in the league preseason poll, and Boeheim says the league is tougher than ever.

Getting beat up by the league schedule may be the only valid excuse for the Orange missing out on an NCAA trip again. As long as they stay healthy, a lack of depth or experience won't be the problem this season.

MORE: Will Syracuse return to the NCAA Tournament?

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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