With Jim Boeheim still at the helm, Syracuse is once again a legit contender.
by David Cassilo / @dcassilo
Syracuse and Georgetown are tied at 61 in overtime, and the Orange has called a timeout with 49 seconds left. As the team stands in a huddle, every one of the nearly 28,000 orange-clad individuals, from the student section to the alumni, are on their feet. Syracuse is a city where you go to school and stay forever.
In the middle of that huddle is a man who went there and stayed the longest—Jim Boeheim. A former player who graduated in 1966, he took over as Syracuse’s head coach in 1976 and has yet to leave.
The play he’s drawing up is relatively simple. It’s called the “double curl.” It has the point guard start with the ball at the top of the key. Two players stack up on the right block while one player stands on the left block and another on the left wing.
From there the point guard has three options to get Syracuse a victory and give Boeheim his 880th win, which will pass North Carolina’s Dean Smith for third all-time in Division I.
Boeheim is the son of a mortician, and if you had to describe him, you would say he looks like the son of a mortician.
He saunters on the sideline like he’s out for a stroll, squints often through his glasses and looks annoyed at times by how loud the music in the Carrier Dome is. If they made a movie about him, Larry David could be cast in the starring role.
Once a yeller and screamer who threw a chair during a press conference at the 1983 Big East Tournament, Boeheim would much rather choose sarcasm now. One of his go-to moves when addressing a player he’s unhappy with is to shrug his shoulders, face his palms out and give a quick, “What are you doing?”
He knows exactly how things should operate on offense and defense, and when you get it wrong, he’ll sit you.
Despite what appears to be a generation gap as wide as the Grand Canyon, his players speak fondly of Boeheim. They appreciate his honesty and say there’s a good sense of humor hiding in there.
“It seems like the other guys are a little bit scared of him and afraid of him,” says Fab Melo, the team’s starting center [Who the NCAA recently ruled ineligible for the Tournament—Ed.]. “I’m not at all. I have a lot of fun with him.”
When not in the game or a press conference, that personality comes out. During practice he’ll try to distract Melo during free throws by chirping in his ear. Often you’ll hear a boyish laugh that can’t possibly come from Boeheim, but it does.
Besides having the third most wins ever, a victory tonight will give him the most for any man in DI who coached at just one school.
“From 1976 to 2012, we all played for the same coach,” says Louis Orr, who played for and coached with Boeheim. “That’s a blessing.”
It’s rare to go to a game when a former player, like Derrick Coleman or Billy Owens, isn’t there. Current players Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Brandon Triche all have relatives who played for Boeheim. Including walk-ons, there are 18 players on the team. At the end of every practice, the team huddles and says, “Family.”
Still, for most of his career, Boeheim was known as a loser who could never win the big one. Then a Carmelo Anthony-led team defeated Kansas in the 2003 title game.
“He was a little more anxious and fidgety than usual before that one,” says Hakim Warrick, a forward on that team.
Now, he has perhaps his best shot for a second one. In what could be its last season in the Big East Conference, Syracuse started the year 23-1.
Early on, it seemed as though the season was destined to be marred by the sexual abuse allegations against former assistant coach Bernie Fine, who started the year with the program. Instead, wins have kept the focus on the team.
As Boeheim designs the play to edge Georgetown and give them a 24th win, he is surrounded by the reason the team is off to such a hot start—its depth.
While most squads don’t have more than eight rotation players, the Orange go 10 deep: the starters Melo, Jardine, Triche, Rakeem Christmas and Kris Joseph, and the reserves Waiters, Michael Carter-Williams, CJ Fair, Baye Keita and James Southerland.
Less than eight minutes into the game against Georgetown, Boeheim has used all 10.
Syracuse has multiple players who can do everything. Melo and Keita are defensive-minded low-post players. Jardine and Triche are floor generals with the ability to make the big shot. Carter-Williams and Christmas are freshmen oozing with athleticism. Waiters, Fair and Southerland are versatile swingmen who can score and defend from the guard or forward spot. Joseph does all of the above.
By having 10 weapons and no definitive go-to-guy, it grinds down opponents and constantly keeps them guessing as to who will shoot next.
“I’d pick anybody on the team to take the last shot,” Waiters says.
Photos courtesy of Syracuse University Athletic Communications.