Jim Boeheim’s Orange are back in the Final Four, although the journey to get there is much different than in years past.
By Justin Weiss
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Jim Boeheim, 71, with his right arm straining in the air and his torso stretching to the sky, seemingly utters a phrase he’s uttered so many times before: “Let’s win this thing!”
Seemingly on cue, the Syracuse Orange, in their gaudy apricot getup, swarm the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers, forcing a turnover.
It’s a thing of beauty, really.
How Boeheim’s under-performing squad could exploit the nation’s best defense by scoring nearly three-quarters of the century mark en route to a 68-62 victory will be forever remembered as one of the greater performances of all time.
Moreso however, is how Boeheim’s squad — which lost to lowly St. John’s and finished the season on a bitterly cold streak — managed to advance to the Final Four despite setbacks, more setbacks and even more setbacks.
The answer to this perplexing inquiry is very simple: Jim Boeheim — and his famous 2-3 zone and unbelievable full-court press — is one of the sport’s all time greats.
Boeheim, who has spent his entire college career at Syracuse, has an awe-inspiring 887-346 lifetime record. A former guard for the Orange, this is his sixth Final Four as a member of ‘Cuse.
The accolades don’t stop there. The list goes on-and-on:
- NCAA Division I championship (2003)
- 5× NCAA Regional championships – Final Four (1987, 1996, 2003, 2013, 2016)
- 5× Big East Tournament championships (1981, 1988, 1992, 2005, 2006)
- 8× Big East regular season championships (1980, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 2000, 2003, 2010)
- Naismith College Coach of the Year (2010)
- AP Coach of the Year (2010)
- NABC Coach of the Year (2010)
- Henry Iba Award (2010)
- The Sporting News National Coach of the Year (2010)
- Clair Bee Coach of the Year (2000)
- 4× Big East Coach of the Year (1984, 1991, 2000, 2010)
- John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching Award (2006)
But how did Boeheim turn Syracuse — one of the most controversial 10 seeds in tourney history — into one the most unlikely stories in tourney history?
“He’s the most competitive guy I know,” associate head coach Mike Hopkins said. “Whatever the circumstances, they took stuff away, but he has so much pride in this program. Like the Secret Service, he’d [take a bullet] for it. That’s how much it means. Even at the start of the game he was as fiery … he came in, and the message was, ‘You have to be ready from the get-go.’ That guy, a lot of people used to say, if you’re playing pool with him and you’re ahead, watch out — because you might get hit in the head with a pool stick.”
This was supposed to be a year of punishment for Boeheim. The head coach was not only supposed to be sidelined for the first nine games of the season as part of a self-imposed (by the school) ban, but he wasn’t permitted to be in contact with his players and fellow coaches — literal hell for someone like Boeheim.
Boeheim, in the most Boeheim-ish thing ever, fought back, and many called for his firing and/or retiring.
After getting eliminated in the first round of the ACC tournament, the Orange seemed destined to get punished again, this time by getting demoted to the NIT Tournament. But ‘Cuse somehow snuck in as the lowest rated at-large team in NCAA history, and here we are.
Forget the wins over Dayton, Middle Tennessee State and Gonzaga. As crazy as they were, nothing compares to their comeback win — down 16 against the nation’s most efficient defense — over the Cavs.
“I’ve never been prouder in all my 40 years of a basketball team than I am of this one,” Boeheim said on the TBS telecast after the game.
He had reason to be. After acknowledging that the 2-3 zone wasn’t working per usual, Boeheim switched to a full-court press and received a superhuman effort from Malachi Richardson.
Boeheim, who was suspended for the first nine games of the season, took one of the weakest teams he’s ever had, barely made the NCAA tournament as a double digit seed, and then shocked the entire college basketball world by improbably advancing to the Final Four.
The Orange are awfully close to winning this thing.