Monday, December 17, 2012
Boeheim's milestone built on consistency
By Eamonn Brennan
Jim Boeheim's 900th win began the same way so many others had. His team blitzed an inferior opponent with reliable offense and that patented 2-3 zone, and the Orange went into halftime leading 40-21. Syracuse fans began the second half ready to celebrate, counting down the seconds until Boeheim could pose for photos with his "900" plaque.
Detroit had other ideas. After 36 minutes of lifelessness, the Titans came storming back, eventually cutting the lead to 3 with under 30 seconds left to play. Syracuse had to take care of the ball and make free throws to win the game 72-68. In what was meant to be an easy coronation, the Orange had to overcome actual pressure.
"If we don't make those free throws at the end, we lose the game," Boeheim told ESPN's Doris Burke after the game. "We haven't had a close game all year this year. [Now] we've had one and we know what it's like. I would have rather we not done that tonight. But we'll take the win and learn from it."
Senior James Southerland helps present Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim with a commemorative jersey.
At that point, Boeheim thanked the fans in the Carrier Dome, and then tried to make that the end of Burke's postgame interview. Burke stopped him -- "I'm not letting you get away that easy, Coach," she said -- as the coach laughed, reluctantly agreeing to further interrogation. And so even if it was harrowing at times, Boeheim's 900th win ended the way so many others: with gruff modesty, sardonicism and an endearing, cranky impatience. Yeah, yeah, 900 wins, great. Let's get this over with, huh? I've still got work to do.
With Boeheim, you always know what you're going to get. That is, perhaps, the defining trait of his career: consistency. Boeheim enrolled as a student at Syracuse in 1962, when he walked on to a then-fledgling basketball team. For the past 50 years -- 50 years! -- Boeheim has either been a player, assistant coach or head coach at Syracuse. His 37 seasons in charge are the most of any coach in Division I. He has taken 29 teams to the NCAA tournament, the most all time. He has won 20 games or more in 34 seasons, also the most all time. He has 402 Big East wins and 47 Big East tournament wins, also both the most all time.
And he has done it in a way that is both wildly unconventional and, by now, almost mechanically predictable. What other great coach in the history of college basketball has not only utilized zone defense frequently but preferred it, perfected it, turned it into an art form? What other coach has sold players on a system and, despite losing NBA talent year after year, been able to replenish talent, reload his teams and win so frequently for so long?
When you consider this consistency, it remains a shock that it took Boeheim so long to win a national title (2003) and even more surprising that it's Boeheim's only banner to date. It might be one of the great flukes of college hoops, the wacky price of a thrilling, single-elimination tournament. And one of my favorite trivia of all time is as follows: Jim Boeheim didn't win his first national coach of the year award until -- wait for it -- 2010.
There will be more time to consider his legacy. In two games (barring an upset Saturday versus Temple, perhaps), Boeheim will tie Bob Knight's 902 wins. In three games, he'll become the second-winningest coach in the history of the sport, where he is likely to finish his career (Coach K's 936 wins make him nigh uncatchable, and he's not slowing down anytime soon). We will take the time to place Boeheim in the pantheon, to discuss how we judge wins versus titles, to tease out his greatest teams and players, to take stock of a career that only gets more impressive by the day.
In the meantime, Boeheim will keep coaching his team, keep using that 2-3 zone, keep hectoring his players after letdowns and building them up after disappointing performances, and keep doing his best to avoid talking about what it all means.
Because what's the point? There's more work to do.