Player eligibility issues, negative headlines, slumps at inopportune times—something seems to creep up each season for longtime coach Jim Boeheim.
He figures he's not alone.
"There's no team that doesn't have distractions during the course of the year," Boeheim, who guided the Orange to a school-record 34 victories last season with scandal swirling around his program, said Monday. "That's part of life, that's what you have to learn to handle. They focused well all year."
In large part because of that singular focus, the Orange, seeded fourth in the East Regional of the NCAA tournament, are headed to the Final Four for the fourth time since Boeheim became head coach in 1976.
Led by versatile 6-foot-6 point guard Michael Carter-Williams, sharpshooting forward James Southerland, and do-it-all swingman C.J. Fair, the Orange are deep, motivated, and intent on bringing a second title to central New York. And this proud, blue collar town, where basketball's shot clock was invented, is eagerly anticipating that again, just like in 2003.
"The Final Four seems to be very important. It's a huge thing up here," said Boeheim, 3-0 in national semifinals. "Our fans really support us, and they like what we do."
What's not to like about the past three weeks. Syracuse (30-9) made the Big East tournament final, losing to Louisville, then beat Montana, California, top-seeded Indiana, and third-seeded Marquette in NCAA regional play. It will meet Michigan (30-7)—the South Regional's No. 4 seed—in the national semifinals at Atlanta on Saturday. Michigan beat Florida 79-59 Sunday to reach the Final Four.
"They have played tremendous basketball over a four-game period, which is not always that easy to do," Boeheim said of his Orange.
It's doubtful many saw this deep run into the postseason coming. Syracuse finished its final Big East regular season—the Orange are headed for the Atlantic Coast Conference in July—with four losses in the final five games.
Syracuse's last home game was a five-point setback to Louisville, which snapped a tie in the final minute on a defensive breakdown. The Orange left Luke Hancock uncovered in the left corner and he drained a back-breaking 3-pointer.
Then, after easily beating DePaul, Syracuse was humiliated by archrival Georgetown for the second time in two weeks, dropping the season finale 61-39. It was Syracuse's lowest scoring total in 558 Big East games and its fewest points in any game since a 36-35 victory over Kent State in 1962—before shot clocks and 3-pointers.
There have been few breakdowns since. In the Big East tournament, Syracuse reeled off victories over Seton Hall, Pittsburgh, and Georgetown before bowing to Louisville.
"Once we got to New York and started to play well, we felt we could compete with anybody," Boeheim said. "We were always a good team. We obviously had a very difficult last part of our schedule and didn't play particularly well. But our defense was good and once we got to New York and started to play there, we could see that we were fine.
"I wasn't worried at all about the NCAA tournament. I felt we were in a good place and we would play well."
Hard to imagine being in a better place, especially after the Bernie Fine scandal last year.
The former associate head coach was fired after being accused by two former ball boys of sexual abuse more than two decades ago but was never charged.
There also were academic issues that forced Southerland to miss six games this season.
In the regional semifinals, Syracuse had 12 steals and 10 blocks in a convincing 61-50 beatdown of Indiana, the lowest offensive output of the season for a team that was averaging 80 points. Then, with a berth in the Final Four at stake against Marquette, which eliminated Syracuse in the NCAA tournament two years ago and beat the Orange 74-71 during the season, Syracuse won 55-39.
The Golden Eagles' 39 points were a record low for a team in an NCAA tournament regional final since the shot clock was introduced in 1986. Carter-Williams, a sophomore in his first full season and likely bound for the NBA in the near future, finished with 12 points, six assists, one turnover, five steals, one block, and eight rebounds, and was voted the East Regional MVP.
"He's even picked up his play. Leadership, getting the ball to people, still being able to score when we need him to because we need him to score," Boeheim said. "He had a great year, but he's had an even better tournament. That's hard to do sometimes for a young player.
"He's really been good in terms of helping his teammates be better. He had eight defensive rebounds against Marquette. I've never had a guard get that many defensive rebounds. I'm not sure that there's been many times that any guard, anywhere, has gotten eight defensive rebounds."
Syracuse's octopus-like defense has covered every inch of the court, eliminating passing lanes, consistently depriving opponents of easy baskets down low, and defending the perimeter with abandon. Its four tournament opponents shot just under 29 percent from the field (61 of 211) and a minuscule 15.4 percent (14 of 91) from behind the arc.
"This is the best that we've played it," Boeheim said. "But Michigan presents more problems than anybody in the tournament. They're the best offensive team in the tournament. We've played some really good teams, but we haven't played anybody as good offensively as Michigan."
It's been a decade since a freshman named Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to its only national championship. It's such a big deal to the university—and a city that bleeds Orange—that the school has a continuous looping video replay on a television monitor of that 81-78 win over Kansas.
The TV monitor sits along one wall of the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center where the team practices, and smack dab in the middle of that wall is the national championship trophy.
Finding room for another shouldn't be a problem.
"I think getting to the Final Four is a great thing for the fans and the city," Boeheim said. "Non-basketball people get involved when we get to the Final Four. Of course, winning the championship is pretty big."
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