WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A little over a year ago to the day, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim couldn’t help himself.
He rarely can. His sense of humor is as wry as they come, but the 69-year-old was — and, arguably, still is — Big East to the core.
It was his team’s last trip to Providence, where the Big East was founded in 1979. Syracuse was a charter member of the league (which was formed three years after Boeheim took over at Syracuse). It’s practically all he knew.
"Every one of these games is a little bit of sadness for me," Boeheim said. "I know where all the good restaurants are now. Now I got to go down to Clemson, South Carolina. I’m sure there’s a couple Denny’s down there. They’ll like me a lot now in Clemson. I like to make friends before I get down there."
Even Boeheim couldn’t have dreamed that he’d be back in Winston-Salem, a city barely 30 minutes outside Greensboro, a little less than a year later — and enjoying the best Italian food he’s had "in a long time."
"I came here and had the best Italian dinner last night, and I thought during the game in the beginning there that that was all I was going to get in Greensboro, or Winston-Salem, wherever we are — Winston-Salem," Boeheim said. "Best Italian dinner I’ve had in a long time. Who would’ve thought it? Winston-Salem."
Boeheim’s No. 2 Syracuse team — which ran its record to 20-0 with a workmanlike win over Wake Forest, a team that hadn’t lost at home this season — did what it always does. It makes plays down the stretch of games, even when it hasn’t been going well.
Syracuse wasn’t making shots, but it played good defense and made just enough plays to win. Ho hum. Another win in the books for the resourceful Orange.
That part of the game didn’t surprise Boeheim too much.
It did surprise him, though, that a good portion of the 12,523 in attendance were wearing orange, and chanting "Let’s Go Orange!" so loudly they drowned out the home crowd, particularly when their lead grew to double digits late in the game.
"I was shocked. In Florida, we had about 4,000 but they all live down there," Boeheim said. "They’re all from Syracuse. I don’t know where these people came from. I was really shocked. I was kind of looking around a little bit. We go places, Philadelphia or Washington, and there’s a lot of people there but here, I was shocked that there were that many people here."
Syracuse senior guard Trevor Cooney said that the team fed off of their surprising semi home-court advantage.
"My freshman year, we came down and played NC State and we had a bunch of Syracuse fans down there," Cooney said. "I don’t know what it is, if it’s in North Carolina, we’ve got a couple fans down here. But we love the support and we definitely heard them today. They definitely got us going towards the second half."
Who would’ve thunk it? A year later, Boeheim and his Syracuse team are as at home in the ACC as they ever were in the Big East. Kind of.
For those who know Boeheim well, they knew his comments about both the Clemson restaurant selection and Greensboro were somewhat tongue in cheek.
But the ACC needs to get used to Boeheim as much as he needs to get used to the ACC. Maybe the league and its followers need to get a little bit thicker skin. Maybe Boeheim needs to learn how and when to use his biting sense of humor. They’ll all adapt to each other, in time, because change is inevitable.
When he shouted out that Italian restaurant in Winston-Salem, a Syracuse beat writer joked that the Syracuse restaurants would be mad.
He shrugged, in a way that only Boeheim can shrug — his hands hit the table afterwards, as he uses his full arm extension in his shrug motion.
"I tell it like it is. We have good restaurants (in Syracuse). I’ve had good food every place I’ve been in the south. … You can’t make jokes anymore," Boeheim said. "At Clemson, I had the best meal I ever had on the road. And here last night, it was a New York City Italian dinner. It was that good.
"I said from the beginning, this is a great league. We’re happy to be in it. The only thing — the only thing — that we miss would be the tournament being in New York City because obviously that’s where all of our people are. It’s a great venue. But that’s one event. This league is a tremendous league. It’s going to only get better and better in time. It’s a tremendous basketball league."
Humor aside, though, initially, he wasn’t a fan of the move to join the ACC. As recently as two weeks ago after a hard-fought ACC win over another former Big East team (Pittsburgh), he called it a Big East game and said "forget ACC."
But with road game crowds like this in North Carolina, and with a matchup with a surging Duke team at home looming, it seems like Boeheim is coming around pretty quickly when it comes to ACC basketball.
What could be better than New York-style Italian and a home crowd away from home, after all?
Syracuse has been selling the pending Duke matchup, as it will pit two head coaches against each other (Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski) that are the two winningest in men’s college basketball. It’s also the first time Duke has played Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse fans in the crowd on Wednesday were wearing t-shirts promoting the Duke game.
Boeheim handled the questions about the Duke matchup with his typical aplomb.
When asked about Duke’s deep bench, he quipped, "As long as they only put five out there at a time, we’re OK."
When asked about Duke’s shooting ability, he shrugged again, shoulders nearly touching his ears.
"A lot of teams can shoot. They can shoot. That’s a strength of their team. They’re playing great," Boeheim said. "The rankings don’t really matter — it’s how they’re playing and how we’re playing, and they’re playing great basketball right now. I think it’s a great game for us and the league. It’ll be fun for everybody."
Sounds to me like Boeheim is catching a serious case of ACC Fever. And who can blame him? Duke and North Carolina have always had some fans at almost every opposing venue across the league. And now, it looks like Syracuse is just as at home in Winston-Salem or Raleigh as it was in Madison Square Garden. Almost.