Syracuse should be strong again despite departures
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP)
Still, despite more distractions than any other team in America, the Orange had a season to remember.
''We had a good season,'' said senior Kris Joseph, the team's leading scorer. ''People are saying it's the best Syracuse has had.''
Despite a tough 77-70 loss to Ohio State on Saturday that deprived Syracuse of its fifth Final Four berth, what the Orange (34-3) accomplished since late November was quite remarkable:
- A ranking of either No. 1 or No. 2 since January;
- 30 wins in the regular season and 34 overall (both school records), which elevated coach Jim Boeheim to third all-time in Division I with 890;
- 19-0 mark at home in the Carrier Dome, only the second time the Orange have done that since the building opened in 1980
- Big East regular-season title with 17 victories, which matched the conference record;
- And three victories over defending national champion Connecticut and two over Louisville, which made the Final Four.
That was all accomplished against this backdrop.
The season began with the dismissal of associate head coach Bernie Fine in late November after two former ballboys accused him of sexually molesting them in the 1980s. Charges have yet to be filed against Fine.
Boeheim was blasted for his initial defense of Fine, a lifelong friend, with many people demanding that he, too, be fired. Boeheim and the university still face a defamation suit filed by the ballboys - Bobby Davis and stepbrother Mike Lang - relating to disparaging comments Boeheim made the night Fine was fired.
On the day the Orange departed for their first two NCAA tournament games, the university announced that Melo would be ineligible to play in the postseason. And after Syracuse won its tournament opener against UNC Asheville, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan singled out Boeheim about the graduation rates of NCAA tournament teams.
That news came a week after school officials said the university had more than a year ago self-reported possible violations of its internal drug policy by former members of the men's basketball team and that the NCAA was investigating. None of the current members of the team was involved.
Through it all, the players remained on an even keel, seemingly unfazed by all that unfolded around them. Syracuse's only loss during the regular season was a slow-paced 67-58 clunker at Notre Dame in January, which came during a three-game absence of Melo because of an academic matter.
Syracuse rebounded to beat Cincinnati 60-53 on the road and squeaked past West Virginia 63-61 in the Carrier Dome before Melo returned. The Orange also beat Georgetown in overtime at home, edged Louisville 52-51 and UConn 71-69 on the road, and entered the postseason on a 10-game winning streak.
''We're as prepared as we can be,'' Boeheim said before the Big East tournament. ''We've had more close games and tough games than we have in some years when we've won so many games. We've had to make big plays and we've made them. That's good preparation. We will not get into a situation any tougher than the ones that we've been in and found a way to win.''
After beating Connecticut for the third time, Syracuse lost to Cincinnati in the Big East tournament semifinals but earned a top seed entering the NCAA tournament and was considered a strong contender to make the Final Four.
The absence of Melo, who led the Big East in blocks with 88 and was named defensive player of the year in the conference, hurt the most despite the tournament heroics of freshman Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita.
The Orange thrived behind the steady play of fifth-year guard Scoop Jardine and Joseph. The emergence of Melo after a less-than-impressive freshman year and sophomore guard Dion Waiters - he was second on the team in scoring at 12.6 points per game despite never starting - and a deep bench transformed Syracuse into a formidable team, considered by many to be the equal of top-ranked Kentucky. Both teams finished the regular season at 30-1.
With the 7-footer from Brazil, the Orange were 29-1; without him 5-2 and unable to play well enough to accomplish what they set out to do - win the school's second national championship.
Heading to next season, the leadership of Jardine and Joseph, the Orange's leading scorer, will be sorely missed, while Waiters declared for the NBA draft on Monday night and Melo probably won't be far behind.
Regardless, a strong nucleus remains: Brandon Triche, a three-year starter at guard, and forward James Southerland, who had standout performances in the first two games of the NCAA tournament, will be seniors; C.J. Fair, a strong rebounder and efficient scorer who struggled toward season's end, will be a junior; despite limited playing time as a freshman, lanky point guard Michael Carter-Williams displayed dazzling ability in 26 games; the 6-foot-9 Christmas and the 6-11 Keita, though slight, give Boeheim a competent duo at center; and shooting guard Trevor Cooney should be ready to contribute after redshirting and being a willing student through a season of practice.
The Orange's freshman class includes local star DaJuan Coleman, a 6-10, 280-pound forward/center, and Jerami Grant, a 6-8 forward from DeMatha Catholic High in Maryland. Nerlens Noel, a 6-10 defensive standout from the Boston area, one of the top recruits in the nation, has limited his choices to Syracuse, Georgetown and Kentucky.
Noel is a good friend of Carter-Williams, which might bode well for the Orange.