College Basketball Nation: Jim Boeheim
ESPN Stats & InformationWith its loss to Georgia Tech on Tuesday, Syracuse has dropped four of its last five games.
It hasn’t just been the sudden frequency of losses, but the quality of some of Syracuse’s opponents that has been surprising. Tuesday’s loss to Georgia Tech gave the Orange back-to-back home losses against teams that entered the game under .500 for the first time since January 1968, when they lost to Connecticut (5-7) and Niagara (7-8).
To put that in perspective, Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy scored 50 points for Niagara in that win and Jim Boeheim was playing for Scranton in the Eastern League that year.
Among teams currently in the top 10 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, two of the three worst losses (when ranked by BPI rank differential) have been by Syracuse: Tuesday’s loss to Georgia Tech had a BPI rank differential of 123, and their first loss of the season to Boston College on February 19 had a BPI rank differential of 138.
Offensive efficiency has been an issue of late for Syracuse. They have scored one point per possession or fewer in six straight games. That happened just twice over the Orange’s first 24 games.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Syracuse is just the second team in the last 20 years to lose four or more games in a season in which they started 20-0 or better. The only other team to do that in that span was Boston College in 2004-05.
The silver lining for the Orange is that last year they were able to rebound from a 1-4 finish to their regular season, reaching the final of the Big East Tournament before making a Final Four run in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse finishes up its regular-season schedule Sunday at Florida State.
ICYMI: TOP STORIES
Duke's win hinges on late block call; Boeheim goes ballistic, and then viral. Jim Boeheim is not a man who upsets easily. Save an exhibition game in 2005, Boeheim has never, in 38 years as the head coach at Syracuse, been ejected from a basketball game. He broke that streak Saturday night, and it was epic.
The call that earned Boeheim's rage was undeniably questionable, and suitably pivotal: Down 60-58 with 10 seconds remaining, Syracuse forward C.J. Fair drove baseline and caught a whistle that seemed subject to the new block-charge rule (wherein defenders have to be set before the offensive player makes his move at the basket). When the official signaled a charge instead, Boeheim pointed toward the new rule, and he was probably right. The problem is that he did so after ripping his jacket off and running on the floor and providing his opinion so vociferously he earned two quick technicals and was ejected from the game. At which point, the block-charge no longer mattered. The game was over.
Jim Boeheim went 38 years without an ejection. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was waiting for the Internet to catch up.
Michigan sweeps Spartans in regular season, move into Big Ten lead, with a 79-70 win Sunday. Remember January? Back when Michigan was playing insanely effective offensive basketball, and Nik Stauskas was positioning himself as an All-American candidate? Remember the Wolverines going to East Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 25 and sealing the whole impressive run with a win over their in-state rivals? That team was back again Sunday afternoon. The Wolverines scored 79 points in 62 possessions, good for 1.27 points per trip, the same average as on Jan. 25. Stauskas scored 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half, Caris LeVert was brilliant, Tom Izzo left shaking his head about his team's inability to stop Michigan -- “We didn’t guard. We ran for 300 yards, passed for 400 yards, but you’ve gotta check someone," he said -- and the Wolverines swept their rivals and put their Big Ten title hopes firmly in their own hands. Not bad for one afternoon's work.
SMU likely seals tourney bid with 64-55 win at UConn. The one thing holding back the fighting Larry Browns from a surefire NCAA tournament bid was their lack of work away from home. All of SMU's notable successes this season had come in their own building -- including Jan. 4's statement win over Connecticut. On Sunday, the Mustangs repeated the feat against the Huskies on the road with a brilliant defensive performance, and a win that filled that last real hole on their résumé.
STAT OF THE WEEK: UNC's win over Duke made the Tar Heels the first team in history -- dating back to the very first Associated Press poll in 1961-62 -- to beat the AP preseason Nos. 1 (Kentucky), 2 (Michigan State), 3 (Louisville) and 4 (Duke) in the same campaign.
THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE
(For two more in-depth previews of two games earlier in the upcoming week -- and this one is especially back-loaded -- check back for Monday morning’s “Planning for Success” series.)
Cincinnati at UConn, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: There are some decent games throughout the week, but nothing comes close to what we've got on deck Saturday -- it's an absolutely loaded slate, and Cincinnati-UConn kicks it off. The American features maybe the three best point guards in the country, and two of them (Cincy's Sean Kilpatrick and UConn's Shabazz Napier) will check each other on both ends of the floor in one that should get the blood pumping early this weekend.
Louisville at Memphis, 2 p.m. ET, CBS: Cincy-UConn will be followed immediately by Russ Smith's trip to the FedEx Forum in Memphis to play a Tigers backcourt that is rather talented in its own right. Louisville locked up its NCAA tournament prospects with Saturday's win at Cincinnati, and Memphis should be pretty safe, too, but this one is about more than tournanment seeds or even short-term conference tables.
Syracuse at Virginia, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: And then, of course, there's this. For weeks now, our own Andy Katz has been touting Virginia as a possible, even probable, ACC regular-season champion, and the scheduling of this game is part of the reason why. On Monday, Syracuse has to turn around from Saturday's loss at Duke with a road trip to Maryland (which should be a relatively easy win, but you never know). On Saturday, it completes its three-game road swing with an absolutely brutal game against one of the nation's most difficult defensive setups. Big, big game.
Saint Louis at VCU, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Last week, VCU nearly went to Chaifetz Arena in Saint Louis and did the unthinkable. Instead, the Billikens held on and extended their winning streak. Assuming it handles dreadful Duquesne Thursday, SLU will arrive in Richmond on Saturday having won its past 20 games. The last time the Billikens lost was Dec. 1 to Wichita State. Their only other defeat came by six to Wisconsin. They're having an insane year.
Kansas at Oklahoma State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Marcus Smart's first action since the infamous Jeff Orr shove was more than impressive: It was the kind of all-court command we hadn't seen Smart deliver since December. He finished with 16 points, 10 assists, 6 steals and 3 rebounds. He shot 5-of-7 from 2 and his team beat Texas Tech (oh, the revenge) by 22; the only negative was his 0-for-3 mark from 3-point range. Which raises the question: Is Oklahoma State ready to get back to the serious, elite form it displayed early in the season? Might a visit from Kansas -- remember, Oklahoma State nearly left Lawrence with a come-from-behind win on Jan. 18 -- redeem the past month of futility? Is Smart ready to be a star once more?
PHOTO VIDEO OF THE WEEK
This space is usually reserved for our favorite single image, but this week, there is no way to confer that honor without relying on the miracle of motion video. I'm talking, of course, about the Kansas bench's reaction to Tarik Black's huge dunk against Texas in the second half. There is the usual assortment of hold-me-back hugs and jumping, but the Jayhawks so thoroughly lost it that the ensuing celebration included a) Wayne Selden leaping over chairs and into a teammate's arms and, best of all, b) Naadir Tharpe doing a spinning robot through the fracas à la that recurring character on "Chappelle's Show." Black's dunk was good. That bench celebration was an all-timer.
DURHAM, N.C. -- Syracuse, a winner of its first 25 games, the No. 1 team in the nation, has in a week dropped back-to-back outings, dropped out of first place in the ACC and, in the process, dropped its close-game mystique.
It had to happen at some point, right?
The Orange were undefeated, but they were not dominant. The warning signs were there as early as the fourth game of the season when they trailed St. Francis Brooklyn by four points with four minutes left. They continued with close games against average teams like Miami, Notre Dame and North Carolina State.
"I think everybody realized we had a lot of things to learn," freshman guard Tyler Ennis said. "We weren’t playing our best, but we were still able to pull out wins."
The difference now is that a loss to Boston College in overtime and Saturday’s 66-60 loss at No. 5 Duke come at a time in the season when the best teams are generally trending upward. With road games left at Maryland, Virginia and Florida State, the Orange are trying to shrug off their setbacks.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim noted his team won its first eight games that were decided by two or fewer possessions before losing the past two.
"We flew through, obviously, and escaped a few times," Boeheim said. "We knew the end of the year would be hard, and that’s fine. These games help you. This will help you. This was a tournament game."
There’s no panic in Syracuse yet, but redshirt sophomore guard Trevor Cooney knows how quickly things can turn.
"I know the guys who were on the team last year that played and we lost five in a row, so we know that feeling and you don’t want to ever have that feeling again," Cooney said. "So you just got to come ready for the next game. You put this game behind you. You learn from it, but you put it behind you."
Postseason games generally are won by great backcourts, but it’s starting to seem like a season’s worth of minutes could be taking its toll on the Orange’s tandem.
The past five games, Ennis is shooting just 33.9 percent from the floor. Ennis has played at least 40 minutes in six of their 13 conference games -- including 43 minutes in the overtime loss to Boston College -- and averages 35 minutes for the season.
Ennis said he wasn’t fatigued, but he was short on many of his jumpers against the Blue Devils, finishing just 2-for-13 from the floor. It marked his lowest shooting percentage for any game in which he’s had more than 10 attempts.
Over that five-game span, Cooney is shooting 29.2 percent, including his 1-of-5 outing against Duke. Cooney, who averages 32 minutes per game, scored his lowest total in ACC play with four points against the Blue Devils.
"We just got to get some easy points in transition, get Trevor some easy looks because he’s been guarded closely," Fair said. "When he makes 3s, that stretches everything else out for us."
Saturday’s game could be a launching point for sophomore guard Michael Gbinije to get more playing time. The Duke transfer returned to Cameron Indoor and scored eight points in 20 minutes off the bench.
He could bring much-needed relief to an Ennis-Cooney backcourt that has carried most of the backcourt load for the Orange all season.
"Our guards have played so far above anything that I would have ever hoped for. I’m just totally impressed with what they’ve done this year," Boeheim said. "Mike coming in is really a good thing for us moving forward. It was tough for him to come back down here and play. He played his best game of the year."
The good thing for Syracuse is its defense is playing at a high level. What’s hurting the Orange lately is their offense is lagging behind.
The rematch with Duke brought offense back to earth for both teams. The Orange, who shot 57.4 percent from the field in the first meeting, managed to shoot just 38.7 percent on Saturday. They scored half of their points in the paint, but when forced to shoot from outside that area, the Orange struggled.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Orange made just nine of 33 attempts from outside the paint against the Blue Devils. The past three games they are shooting just 20 percent outside the paint. That’s why they made an effort to get to the rim in the second half en route to shooting 51 percent.
"We played to our strengths. We attacked the basket a lot more. I feel like that’s why our percentage was so high [in the second half]," said sophomore forward Jerami Grant, who scored a team-high 17 points.
Grant said back-to-back losses haven’t put any dent in the team’s confidence in close games.
"We have a lot of poise. I definitely think we can bounce back," Grant said. "We have a quick turnaround, which is probably a good thing for us going out to Maryland. I know it’s going to be a tough game, tough environment. We’ll be fine. We just have to go out and play our own game."
Does “clutch” exist?
Most advanced statisticians say no. Time and again, when the data is compiled and collated, the numbers tell us that in “clutch” situations, most players perform roughly as well as at any other point in the game. Sometimes, the players we know are clutch — Kobe Bryant is the most notable example — are even worse than normal. Science tells us no, clutch isn’t a thing. But then how do you explain Tyler Ennis?
Here’s another question: Was Syracuse supposed to beat Pittsburgh on Wednesday night?
The Orange trailed the entire game — they were never behind by more than a bucket or two, sure, but they were never in command, either. They were outrebounded by huge ratios on both ends of the floor. The offense was frequently stagnant.
In the closing moments, they traded toe-to-toe go-ahead free throws, but they were on the wrong side of that exchange with four seconds and zero timeouts and the ball out of bounds on their own baseline. The only shot they could get was a 35-foot heave from their freshman point guard as the buzzer expired. You’re not supposed to win that game, are you?
Sometimes, clutch does exist.
Yes, folks, Syracuse is 24-0, still rolling, still discovering new and more nail-biting ways to win games, still unbeaten two full weeks into February. The latest escape, a 58-56 win at Pittsburgh, came courtesy of Ennis — who else? — who recused the Orange from a hard-fought first loss of the season with a stunning 35-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer.
How does this keep happening? Ennis didn’t just make the game-winner, after all; he cooly knocked down two free throws a possession earlier to put the Orange ahead for the first time. It was only after Pitt forward Talib Zanna repaid the favor on the other end that some truly silly last-second heroics were required.
But that’s what Ennis has done all season. According to ESPN Stats and Info — and these are crazy numbers, so it’s probably best to be seated — in one-possession games in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime games this season, Ennis is 8-of-9 from the field and 14-of-14 from the free throw line with six assists and zero turnovers. On “game-tying or go-ahead plays,” he is 4-of-4 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line. Against Duke, he made the free throws that would have sealed the game in regulation, before Rasheed Sulaimon’s buzzer-beating 3. In overtime of that game, he went 4-of-4 from the stripe.
Most NBA veterans don’t have this gift of self-assured cool. Ennis is a freshman in college.
That said, chalking it all up to Ennis’ brilliance would do the rest of the Orange a disservice, just as claiming Syracuse didn’t deserve to win Wednesday would belie the strength of their performance, and their opponent’s.
Pitt won the interior battle against one of the longest, toughest teams in the country. It grabbed 47 percent of its own misses and 76 percent of Syracuse’s, and it blocked 25 percent of available shots on its own end. Syracuse was held to just three second-chance points. Save their two meetings with Pitt, the Orange have scored at least eight in every other game this season.
On offense, the Panthers poked and prodded the Syracuse zone with relative efficiency, using Lamar Patterson’s brilliant feel (and years of Big East experience) to break down the middle of the zone. The final Pitt free throws happened exactly that way — Patterson got the ball into the middle of the lane and dropped off a little pass to Zanna, who drew the foul. It was hardly the first time that strategy worked Wednesday night. Zanna finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, Patterson with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists.
All of which made it possible for Ennis to do his thing at the end. Which he promptly did.
It’s hard to overstate how disappointing the loss is for Pittsburgh. On the one hand, there’s no shame in losing to Syracuse. On the other hand, after playing the Orange close on the road early in the year, after home losses (the latter a similar heartbreaker) to Duke and Virginia two weeks ago, and after near-upsets to Miami and Virginia Tech on the road in the past seven days, Dixon’s struggling team had a victory over the top team in the country right in its grasp.
One might conclude that paragraph by saying Pitt let the game “slip away.” That Pitt should have won, that Syracuse should have lost. That this was the night Ennis’s unmistakable clutchness would fall in line with scientific understanding. That Wednesday night the Orange were finally supposed to lose.
Instead, Ennis kept making everything, from free throws to last-second 35-foot floaters, with the clock ticking down and the game on the line. And Boeheim’s team kept winning.
How better to describe the 24-0 Syracuse Orange? “Supposed to” does not apply.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Jim Boeheim was here when John Thompson Jr. closed Manley Field House and here when the doors to the Carrier Dome first opened.
He is the building’s unofficial historian, curator even, the guy who knows not every inch of the place but literally what the walls would say if they could talk.
No one else has logged more hours in the building, a daily grind of 34 years and counting.
You could say Boeheim has seen a thing or two in the Dome. He did, after all, coach Pearl Washington here, Derrick Coleman, too, and Carmelo Anthony. This is where he said goodbye to Gerry McNamara’s college career and the Georgetown rivalry.
And yet, when the buzzer sounded on a game that Mike Krzyzewski, another guy who has seen a thing or two, called "epic," even Boeheim was out of words.
“I don’t think I’ve been involved in a better game in here that I can remember,’’ Boeheim said.
Syracuse beat Duke 91-89 in overtime. That’s the short story. The long version is almost too hard to explain, played as much on guts as talent, with as much intensity as heart. It went an extra five minutes. It still didn’t seem like enough. It was that good.
Rasheed Sulaimon hit a buzzer-beating 3 to force overtime. Rodney Hood missed a one-handed, would-be game-winning dunk that would have been so monstrous had it gone down instead of off the back of the rim, it would rank as a top 10 for the season. C.J. Fair scored 28 on every sort of floater and muscle drive you could conjure. A record 35,446 Orange juiced fans filled the Dome, cheering so loudly that even Seattle Seahawks fans had to be impressed.
That’s a season’s worth of highlights in one game.
"How many people can say they were a part of a game like this?" Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski wanted a foul. He didn’t get one.
"The game was too good to talk about one play," Krzyzewski said. "I’m not going there at all."
In the immediate scheme of things, the result matters. Duke is in danger of finishing out of the top three in the ACC, and, should North Carolina join the Blue Devils in the fourth-or-worse category, it will mark the first time in league history that neither finished in at least the bronze-medal category.
The Orange, meantime, remain in the hunt for perfection, with a school-record 21-0 mark. Syracuse has the clear path to becoming the ultimate party crasher and could win its first ACC crown in its first try.
But this was bigger than all of that, really.
Mark down the date -- Feb. 1, 2014: College basketball finally won one in the conference-realignment shuffle.
"Great rivalries don’t have to be built on hatred," Krzyzewski said. "They’re built on respect, on a respect for excellence."
Krzyzewski knew it could be this way. Well, maybe not this good exactly, but good. That’s why the only basketball coach who could make anyone listen spoke up. Tired of watching football people rearrange his sport, he essentially led the ACC to its come-to-Naismith moment.
Adding Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame -- and Louisville next season -- surely bolsters the football rosters, but it gives credence to a league that billed itself as basketball first but usually played second fiddle to the Big East.
The truth is, this wasn’t -- and never would be -- Boeheim’s first choice. Given his druthers, the Syracuse coach would still be taking road trips to Washington and Philadelphia, not Winston-Salem, N.C., and Raleigh, N.C.
Everything would be the same as it always was, as good as it always was.
Both he and his program built their reputations on the backbone of the Big East, and if he didn’t go to the ACC kicking and screaming, he at least went reluctantly, recognizing the business of the decision, even if he questioned its soul. It was hard to watch the Big East die, harder still to know his school helped pull the plug.
There is no more Missouri-Kansas, no more Georgetown-Syracuse. But now, we have Syracuse-Duke.
If this is how it’s going to be, well, feel free to bring on more.
"I feel like this rivalry has been going on for 30 years and it’s only the first one," Fair said.
It probably felt like that because the buildup was weeks in the making. Students started camping out 12 days ago in Boeheimburg, which, thanks to occasional sub-zero temperatures, is a touch less trying than hanging out in Krzyzewskiville in Durham, N.C.
Town buses streamed "Beat Duke" across their fronts, and another sign, "Go SU, beat Duke," served as the departing shot for travelers exiting the airport.
Syracuse even pulled out its trump card, getting Vanessa Williams, Class of ‘85, to sing the national anthem.
Not even the last game against Georgetown, for all its history and nostalgia, could match the first game against Duke.
"If you paid $2,400 for a courtside seat, it was money well spent," Boeheim said. "And if you sold your tickets, well, you should be ashamed because you made money but you missed out on an epic."
And now for the kicker.
We get to do this all over again.
On Feb. 22, Syracuse travels to Duke, which will be a slightly more intimate, no less frenzied atmosphere.
"It’s going to be a ridiculous game," Tyler Ennis said. "They fought us for 40 minutes plus, so we’ve got to be ready to come into their home."
Asked if it could match this one, Ennis paused and smiled.
"I’m not sure about that," he said.
Neither is Jim Boeheim.
It’s not difficult to identify the strengths that make Syracuse such a stalwart contender.
Its elite playmakers -- Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant -- could all be millionaires in a few months. Its bench is packed with capable reserves.
Syracuse is long and athletic. Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone pushes opponents to the court’s margins, disguising the pockets of space as gaps while luring them into traps. They flood the lane.
Analytic stats, which allows one to label the effectiveness and potential of teams better than at any time in college basketball history, love the Orange.
Entering the weekend, the Orange had allowed just 25.0 PPG in the paint according to ESPN Stats & Information, third-fewest among power conference schools. They also possessed the ACC’s top offensive rebounding rate (41 percent) and its best defensive turnover percentage (Syracuse had forced turnovers on one-quarter of its opponents’ possessions in its first 17 games).
The polls love the Orange (second in the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls). Ken Pomeroy’s module loves the Cuse (No. 2 overall on KenPom.com), too.
That collection of numbers did not mean much to Boeheim as his team lost its lead during a 59-54 win over Pittsburgh in the Carrier Dome on Saturday.
Lamar Patterson missed five of his first seven shots but put up a few miracle 3-pointers in the second half that killed the vibe. His second clutch 3 put Pitt ahead with 6:02 to play.
Those shots allowed Syracuse's lofty numbers to be pushed aside for the oft-referenced -- and cliché -- eye test.
Everything we really needed to know about Syracuse was reaffirmed against the Panthers in the final minutes.
It wasn’t the team’s first bout with drama this season, as Syracuse encountered turbulence against Miami, Boston College and even St. Francis (N.Y.). But those were nothing compared to what beset the Orange on Saturday.
Pitt was roaring rapidly, as the Panthers nibbled away at a 10-point deficit in the second half that seemed like 30 in a low-scoring affair before taking the lead on Patterson's second 3-pointer.
That's when Ennis emerged.
There were his two layups that ultimately put Cuse ahead by three points with 32 seconds to play. His late free throws essentially sealed it.
He’s a freshman with a veteran’s vision, an assertive leader. He doesn’t panic -- he just goes.
The common theme among last year’s Final Four teams was their trustworthy point guards. Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke, Malcolm Armstead and Peyton Siva were critical players in their respective squads’ runs to Atlanta.
Ennis has that DNA, too.
In a significant league matchup, he belied his age with his effectiveness and poise, and did it with the game on the line.
Grant is a pro. He’s relentless on both ends of the floor, as his jump shot kicked off a 12-4 run that gave Syracuse temporary separation in the second half.
Fair finished with 13 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 40 minutes. Trevor Cooney secured a rebound off Cameron Wright's missed 3-pointer prior to Ennis’ crucial layup.
The Orange's defense picked up, too. That last 3-pointer by Patterson was his last field goal of the game, as he missed his final three shots due in large part to Syracuse's suffocating defense.
Boeheim has everything for an ACC and national title run.
Syracuse’s numbers were strong on Saturday. It shot 51 percent from the field and held Pitt to 38 percent shooting.
In the process, the Orange proved that they're a legitimate national title contender again and the team to beat in the ACC. Not simply because of what the stat sheet says but also based on the manner in which they closed the game.
Syracuse’s ACC slate will offer additional tests in the near future. There’s a highly anticipated game against Duke on Feb. 1. The Orange will travel to Pitt (Feb. 12) and Duke (Feb. 22) next month, and a road game at Virginia on March 1 should also be a challenge.
But on Saturday, Syracuse certainly passed the eye test.
Its grade? A. As in “America’s best team.”
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Watching Trevor Cooney, it’s hard not to think of a certain other Irishman in Orange. Elementary schoolers sang odes on Gerry McNamara’s last game at Syracuse while fans openly wept, so Cooney has a few miles to go before he matches his assistant coach in Syracuse lore.
A few more nights like Tuesday, though, and the fans back in his Delaware hometown might want to start reserving the Greyhounds for his last night at the Dome just like the folks in Scranton did for McNamara.
It wasn’t just the five made 3-pointers. They were nice, especially the big one he hit early in the second half to start what would be a methodical march to an easy 69-52 victory against Indiana in the Orange’s first Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
No, like McNamara, what endears Cooney to the crowd is how he plays. He looks more like the kid you’d pick last for dodgeball. Aside from the coaching staff, no one on the Syracuse bench has less hair on their heads than Cooney. He’s sort of pasty and scruffy and, in an interview, is polite and unassuming, with not even a hint of bravado.
Looks, they truly are deceiving, because Cooney flat out can play. He is not some arc-camping diva but rather a gritty baller who swiped four steals to go with his 21 points and wrote the first part of what might be his McNamara-esque epic with 9:19 left in the game.
Syracuse led by a comfortable 17 points when Cooney swiped the ball from Jeremy Hollowell. He barreled toward the basket for a layup but was hit hard from behind by Austin Etherington. Cooney crashed into the stanchion, while the Dome fans went bananas.
While the officials went to review the play -- they’d eventually assess Etherington with a flagrant-2 and eject him -- an initially woozy Cooney huddled up his teammates while the students chanted, "Tre-vor Coo-ney."
The time didn’t come right away for Cooney, as so often is the case here. Immediate gratification is rare at Syracuse, where coach Jim Boeheim still prefers the old-fashioned method of teaching and growing players into their roles.
That was Cooney, who redshirted his freshman season. Instead of looking at it as a year off, though, he made it a year on. Full on. His workouts were “grueling,” McNamara said, complete with before-practice Dome stair runs, endless hours in the weight room and even more in the gym. Cooney said it was easy because he wasn’t playing, but even McNamara, no slacker himself, was awed.
Even after that redshirt season, Cooney waited some more. Last season, Cooney came off the bench behind an all-star roster that included Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. He averaged just 11.2 minutes a game and when he did get his chance, his shots didn’t always go in. Cooney shot only 26 percent from the arc.
"Coming in here, I knew it would be a process," Cooney said. "I decided to treat it like a journey. I just knew if I kept working, one day it would come."
And now finally, this season, the day has come. He’s shooting 26-of-55 from the arc (47.2 percent), and he and teammate Tyler Ennis are playing as well as any backcourt in the country, making the transition from Carter-Williams and Triche much more seamless than anyone could imagine.
But that’s always the way it is for Boeheim. If there is a better coach at fitting the square pegs into his square holes, I’m not sure who it is. Boeheim doesn’t just find the best players; he finds the best players that fit his needs. His is not so much a system as it is a well-oiled machine.
It’s why year after year, player after player, Syracuse is still good. Look at this team and you can see the parts working together: the shooter (Cooney), the savvy point guard (Tyler Ennis), the scorer (C.J. Fair), the bigs who won’t kill you but will do what they need to do (DaJuan Coleman, Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas). Mix in the confounding zone and it all makes sense.
"We all know this system," McNamara said. "We know how to find the fillers and the guys that we need. We know every play. We know the zone. We know exactly who fits."
It's dangerous, of course, to make any grand presumptions about a team in December. In Indiana’s case, it would be downright unfair. The Hoosiers are incredibly young and it’s an awful lot to ask a team full of freshmen to come into an atmosphere like this one -- 26,414 on a random Tuesday night in December -- against a defense like that one and play well.
Could they have played better? Yes. Syracuse’s zone is now officially Indiana’s kryptonite. The Hoosiers looked as puzzled and confused here as they did nine months ago in the Sweet 16, which is a bit surprising. Theoretically, they’ve watched game tape since.
Still, this by no means sends Indiana into the trash heap.
And bold proclamations about Syracuse are equally dangerous but I’m still willing to make one: The Orange are very good, maybe even best team in the ACC good. At the very least, circle the dates of Feb. 1 (Duke at Syracuse) and Feb. 22 (the Orange in Durham) good.
We've gotten this far and haven't even mentioned Fair much. The leading scorer of a year ago is again at the top of the statistics. He's more than capable of taking over a game, but he doesn't have to. The Orange have four players averaging double figures.
Including the guy sitting right behind Fair in the scoring column: Trevor Cooney, Gerry McNamara in training.
Nine days ago, you were probably reminded that Syracuse was playing a random home game on a Monday night in November well after the game had started and just before it finished -- and in hurried tones to boot.
Yes, last Monday night, Syracuse was losing -- not just casually trailing by a few points, but in full-on Defcon 1, might-actually-lose-this-game losing -- to Saint Francis at the Carrier Dome.
The whole thing was just kind of gross. The Orange were out of sorts offensively from their most experienced player (C.J. Fair, who scored seven points on 2-of-13 shooting) to their least (freshman guard Tyler Ennis, who posted a 37.0 offensive rating in a metric for which 100.0 is about average). The saving grace was a couple of late turnovers and transition buckets, but any concern Syracuse fans might have had about their team rebuilding a perimeter without Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland seemed justified. Random off night? Early-season flub? Or a shudder-worthy glimpse at the season to come?
After Wednesday night's commanding Maui win over Baylor, let's go ahead and put the latter option to rest.
The Orange's offense might not always be the prettiest in the world, but it is likely to be effective. The defense might not be as sturdy on the perimeter as last season, but it will still force plenty of bad shots -- and even more turnovers.
Ennis might not rank with the biggest freshmen in the game right now, but he has promise dripping out of his ears and is turning it into effective play more frequently with every game. Fair might not be a shoo-in for All-American, but he is beginning to find his footing -- beginning to play like a star.
Syracuse might not be perfect; it's certainly nowhere near the team that ground opponents into 2-3 zone pulp en route to the Final Four last season. But it is still a very talented team with a whole host of strengths, and one that still looks totally capable of winning the ACC in its very first season in the league.
Plenty of those traits were on display Wednesday night. Individually, Fair scored 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting against a long interior defense that had given opponents fits to date. Ennis didn't shoot it particularly well, but he did finish with 11 points and, more importantly, nine assists. And Jerami Grant, Boeheim's ace in the hole, contributed 19 points on 12 shots in crucial minutes off the bench.
Wednesday night was always going to be an uphill battle for Baylor, for reasons mentioned in "On Holiday" on Wednesday afternoon: The one thing Syracuse has done consistently this season is turn people over, and the biggest weakness for an otherwise good Baylor team is its propensity to cough the ball up. So it's no surprise that Baylor turned it over 20 times; that was the key difference in a game in which they made 26 of 47 from the field and 9 of 19 from 3-point range.
Perhaps most impressive, the Orange never looked like anything but eventual, codified winners Wednesday. They jumped out to a 10-2 run early, and while Baylor made its counters -- it knocked down several batches of 3-pointers, and even closed the lead to 68-62 with a few minutes to play -- Syracuse never panicked. The game never felt or sounded like it was in doubt, even when Baylor started making 3s. That's an impossible thing to quantify; it's an almost imperceptible quality. But it feels applicable here.
There is much to be done for Boeheim, no doubt. The Orange, like everyone else, have their warts. But a year after a Final Four appearance, after as deep a roster hit as Boeheim has felt in his recent run of uninterrupted success, Syracuse still has the look.
The additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame will unequivocally make the league that grew up on basketball the nation’s best. And at least on paper, it’s hard to argue against it.
“For 60 years the ACC has been the best conference in college basketball,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “ There may have been a little lull where the Big East, the [SEC] or Big Ten -- I don’t see anybody being the best –- any better than us now. I don’t care what year it is.”
Duke was the overwhelming choice to win the conference by media attending today’s event. The Blue Devils garnered 50 first-place votes out of 54. Syracuse received three first-place votes and was picked second. North Carolina, which got one first place vote, was picked third.
Since 1997, there have only been three years when the Tar Heels or Blue Devils didn’t have at least a share of the ACC regular-season championship. The newcomers are expected to challenge the stranglehold UNC and Duke have had on the title.
At the very least, the newest league members should add needed depth after the ACC received only four NCAA tournament bids last season.
The league will have three active Hall of Fame coaches in Krzyzewski, Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim -- and add a fourth next season when Rick Pitino and Louisville become a member.
Boeheim once voiced resistance to the move when talk of the Orange joining the ACC remained just talk. Now that Syracuse is in the league, he spoke like a longtime resident of Tobacco Road.
Boeheim said the transition from being a charter member of the Big East to the ACC wasn’t difficult because his former league changed so much. He pointed out the ACC now has more former Big East schools (including Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College) than the current Big East (Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Georgetown.)
“I mean, there’s a certain degree of nostalgia of being in that league because that’s where you worked 34 years,” Boeheim said. “But this is a better league.”
Boeheim pointed out that Syracuse has sold more than 20,000 season tickets, which has already surpassed last season’s total of about 15,000. Duke’s visit to the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1 is already sold out and the North Carolina game on Jan. 11 isn’t far behind.
“The only thing our fans will miss,” Boeheim said, “is the Big East tournament.”
- Many players hate that Maryland is playing in its final season before joining the Big Ten, but it has nothing to do with the Terrapins being an ACC charter member or the tradition it’s had in the league. The Maryland/Washington, D.C. area has produced a lot of players who were looking forward to coming home to College Park. “It still feels weird to think about they’re not going to be there,” said Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins, a Columbia, Md., native. “The only thing I think about is beating them, actually. That’s the only thing I can think about. I’m really looking forward to that Jan. 15 game.” Pitt forward Talib Zanna said facing Maryland was what excited him most about joining the league. “I know a lot of people when you don’t say Duke or North Carolina they look at you like you’re crazy,” Zanna said. “Duke and North Carolina have a lot of history, they win a lot of games but I’m looking up to playing Maryland just because that’s where I grew up. I just want to play in the arena.”
- The ACC will have its share of impact transfers this season, including Duke’s Rodney Hood, who came from Mississippi State; Virginia’s Anthony Gill, who came from South Carolina; and Maryland’s Evan Smotrycz, who played at Michigan. Hood thinks it is a trend that will only increase. “Other than the money, it does feel like free agency,” Hood said. “Guys transfer for different reasons. I’m sure mine was different than a lot of other guys. I really like the school I was at and made a basketball decision.”
- Syracuse senior forward C.J. Fair was selected the ACC preseason Player of the Year by the media. Fair was the leading scorer for the Orange last season, but it’s his leadership role that will have to expand this season after the departures of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. “It’s something I haven’t experienced since high school,” Fair said. “Not so much to carry the team, but lead the team.”
Then there is the cynical view. The NCAA cynic argues that universities set up the NCAA as a cabal from its earliest days to directly profit without employing, paying or providing health care to its "student-athletes," a term the NCAA devised to make the whole scam sound noble. There are facts to support this view, too, from Taylor Branch in the Atlantic to O'Bannon v. NCAA. Sure, the NCAA might not be evil, the cynic argues, but it is exploitative.
Here's a wild guess: The way you feel about the above paragraphs is going to directly align with how you feel about what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said at an annual meeting of New York Associated Press newspaper editors Wednesday:
Boeheim took exception with retired NBA star Chris Webber's complaint he received nothing after his team shirt was sold. In a documentary released earlier this year, Webber lamented that while a student-athlete at Michigan, his team jersey sold in a campus store for $75 without any money going to him.
Boeheim noted that Webber received a free education and the exposure that allowed him to go on to a hugely lucrative professional career.
"He didn't get his $30,000 or $40,000," Boeheim said. "But he got his money."
Boeheim called the idea of paying college athletes "the most idiotic suggestion of all time." That is not true. One time my friend suggested that I would probably like mayonnaise if I actually put it on a really good sandwich, so I did, and let me tell you: That was the dumbest suggestion of all time. Mayo is gross.
Hyperbole and lovable Boeheimian grumpiness aside, if you are the kind of person who thinks the NCAA is drastically behind the times but doing its best to make the student-athlete concept work, you are likely to be as equally forgiving of Syracuse's iconic coach. When Boeheim began his coaching career, pay-for-play was unheard of. Players played for their degrees, and to expose themselves to the pro ranks, and hey, what's wrong with that? Now, after 51 years as a Syracuse player and coach, a bunch of outraged people are determined to change the system Boeheim has built his life around. You would probably think that was dumb, too.
The cynical, unforgiving view is that of course Boeheim is totally happy to be among the privileged few participants in collegiate athletics who are allowed to earn what the market says they're worth. Syracuse paid Boeheim $1.8 million in 2012, more than any other university employee. He deserves that money, it is said, because it is proportional to the value he generates for Syracuse. But what about the value generated by players? Why are coaches financially compensated and players aren't? In a world where 14-year-old prospects are obsessively ranked, and far-flung internationals are on NBA radars for years before they're drafted, how much is "exposure" really worth? And what about that degree? In the past 50 years, how many academically unprepared college athletes were admitted to schools simply because they could play basketball? How many were passed through classes because their absence would hurt the team? How many would-be pros have failed to turn "exposure" into an NBA draft pick, and left their schools without receiving a real collegiate education? Chris Webber got his money in the NBA, but so what? He's the exception. Not the rule. What about everyone else?
This is a conversation foisted upon college basketball by the NBA. Prior to 2006, it was safe to assume that talented players who didn't want to be in college didn't have to be. That is in some sense still the case. If a prospect has a dire financial need, he can go to Europe; if he has little use for college, and/or a moral issue with being unpaid, he can sign with an agent and work out with a trainer for a year.
But the bottom line is still this: As long as this much money flows through the system, it is impossible to watch a basketball coach with a six-figure monthly take-home say his players aren't worth a dime more than their classes, books and board. If that's true, then every college coach in the country is due for a steep pay cut. Or a salary based on his players' graduation and professional-placement rates. Or maybe college basketball coaches should just be happy with the exposure! They can make money when they turn pro. Wait.
No matter what view of the NCAA you take, pretending there isn't a massive disconnect here is just that -- pretending. One can forgive Boeheim for being on the wrong end of that disconnect. He's been in the game a half-century, man. He deserves some slack. But that doesn't mean pointing the disconnect is idiotic. It's reality.