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Syracuse, Jim Boeheim, embrace return to NCAA tournament after 'difficult' year

ST. LOUIS -- Jim Boeheim is known for a lot of things. Being full of mirth is usually not one of them.

But the Syracuse coach said that seeing his team pop up in the NCAA tournament field was the happiest he'd ever been on Selection Sunday. Which we like to imagine meant cracking a small smirk.

The Orange have played in 32 NCAA tournaments in Boeheim's 40 seasons as head coach. None have come under all the circumstances accompanying this year's bid.

"This was the first time that we were on the so-called bubble that we actually made it," Boeheim said Thursday in St. Louis, where his 10th-seeded Orange will play No. 7 seed Dayton in Friday's first round. "And it's obviously been a difficult year for them to go through everything that's happened."

"Everything" includes Syracuse's self-imposed postseason ban in 2015, Boeheim's nine-game suspension in the middle of this season and sweating out the bracket reveal with a 19-13 record.

After all that, the Orange are back in the field -- coincidentally against the team that eliminated them from their last NCAA tournament appearance. Dayton pulled off the upset over then-No. 3 seed Syracuse in the 2014 round of 32.

That loss feels like a long time ago, certainly for the veteran players who have been waiting for another tournament shot since.

"Especially after the season we had last year, this is just a gift for us," senior Michael Gbinije said. "Really we're happy to be in, and we just want to take full advantage of it."

Not everyone thought Syracuse belonged here. Boeheim's squad made its bones early by winning the Battle 4 Atlantis, beating UConn and Texas A&M along the way. But it also lost five of its final six games, including its first ACC tournament contest.

The Orange finished with the worst RPI of any team ever to earn an at-large bid. They not only made the field, but they somehow avoided the First Four in Dayton.

"I kind of thought we would get the play-in game," senior guard Trevor Cooney said. "When we saw Pittsburgh [which beat Syracuse three times] get a 10 seed, I'm thinking, 'What's going on now?'"

Boeheim believes his suspension played a role in Syracuse's shaky metrics. The NCAA denied his appeal on Dec. 3, forcing him to begin serving the ban immediately. The Orange lost two days later at Georgetown and also dropped a Dec. 13 game at lowly St. John's. They would go 4-5 with Boeheim sidelined.

Boeheim and his staff had prepared for the ban, but they weren't sure when it would begin. Even though assistant coach Mike Hopkins has coached under Boeheim for 20 years, things weren't the same when he took over as interim head coach.

"When it hit like that and we had two days, the team could not adjust to that," Boeheim said. "They really couldn't.

"It wasn't so much that Mike did something wrong. There was nothing he couldn't have done. John Wooden couldn't have done anything. ... If it had been the opposite and I was an assistant taking over, it just wasn't going to work. It's different. I do things differently and have a different voice than he has. He will be very successful, but it took a couple of games and it wasn't a good situation. We were too fragile."

Boeheim didn't quite know what to do with himself during the suspension. Friends in the business suggested golf, but Boeheim said, "How do you go play golf when your team's getting beat by 10, 15 points someplace? I don't think that's a good picture to put in the paper." He attended more of his kids' high school games than he normally would. He watched a lot of basketball games at home on TV.

"Nobody really wanted to watch them with me, I guarantee you that," he said.

At least he once again has plans in March. Last year's postseason ban -- stemming from an eight-year NCAA investigation -- proved fortuitous as the Orange finished 18-13 and likely would have missed the tournament anyway. Boeheim insists that the 2014-15 team, which was 15-7 when the ban was instituted, might have made the field if its spirit hadn't been crushed by the news. And, he says, the Orange "could have done something" in the bracket if given the chance.

Yet he agrees the ban was still the right move at the right time.

"The misconception is that you don't have to take this ban. You can wait," he said. "I don't know where the media gets that from. There is no waiting.

"The other thing is that one month knowing you're not going to the tournament is one thing. To sit in Syracuse and for 10 months know we're not going to the tournament next year, that would not have been good."

It's all good again at Syracuse, for now, with Boeheim coaching this team in the NCAA tournament just like old times. It might even be enough for him to seem happy.