SYRACUSE — James Southerland’s four-year journey at Syracuse has taken him from being basically an afterthought as a freshman and sophomore, to a productive performer last season as a junior.
And now to his senior season, the 6-foot-8 forward from Queens is slated to play an even more expanded role on both ends of the court, as well as provide constant leadership for the young players.
In Sunday’s home opener against Wagner at the Carrier Dome, Southerland displayed while he is so valuable to Jim Boeheim’s team as the first man off the bench. He scored 15 points, grabbed five rebounds, dished out four assists and blocked three shots in 22 minutes as eighth-ranked SU (2-0) rolled over the Seahawks 88-57 to record its 23rd straight home win.
Known as basically a stand-still jump shooter his first few years at SU, Southerland, one of two seniors, has worked hard to expand his game and become an all-around player. He said all of that is a product of continued hard work and belief in his abilities.
“I’ve learned over the years that staying focused on what you want to do is the best motivation,’’ Southerland said. “There were times in the past few years that I would get down on myself after a bad game and wonder if I was working hard enough. Now I’m confident that my time in practice is making all the difference, and that I now can bring that to the court as well.’’
Boeheim said Southerland gives his club “a boost of energy when he comes in. And now, being a senior, he is also providing leadership and the ability to make plays on offense and defense.’’
Southerland entered the game four minutes into the first half with the Orange struggling to find their offensive rhythm. Upon entering, he hit a fadeaway 15-footer and then drained an open 18-foot jumper.
Later in the half, Southerland converted a couple of drives into three foul shots, then finished the half with a running 10-footer in the lane as SU built the halftime lead to 36-23.
“The big thing I’ve learned is to start my game inside and then I can take it outside,’’ he said. “I’ve worked hard on my dribble penetration and my post moves, too. I’m confident now that I can face-up and hit the shot or go to the basket and convert. That makes my defender a lot more vulnerable.’’
In the second half, Southerland hit a 3-pointer, added a dunk on a nice feed from Michael Carter-Williams (career-high 11 assists), and concluded his productive stint with another 16-foot baseline jumper.
Fellow senior Brandon Triche, who led SU with 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds, said Southerland is simply doing what he does in practice every day.
“He’s constantly moving, giving us energy whether it’s on offense or defense,’’ Triche said. “The young guys watch his enthusiasm and it’s contagious.’’
Southerland said he’s told the young guys to “simply play basketball and don’t worry about anything else when you’re on the court.’’
Another player who figures to give the Orange a big boost off the bench this season is junior center Baye Moussa Keita. The 6-foot-10 Keita produced a career-best 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting and snagged five rebounds in just 13 minutes.
Last year, Keita was limited by a hand injury that nagged him most of the season. He said that is fully healed and that “has allowed me to practice harder and do some of the things I couldn’t do a year ago.’’
Redshirt freshman guard Trevor Cooney also made an impressive home debut. The former Delaware state player of the year hit a pair of 3-pointers, dished out three assists and came up with six steals.
Cooney said the opportunity to finally get on the court “is what I worked so hard for all of last season. Going against guys like Brandon, Scoop (Jardine) and Dion (Waiters) every day in practice really benefitted me and helped me really prepare for this season.’’
SU is back at the Dome at 7 p.m. Wednesday, hosting Ivy League member Princeton.