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Boeheim begins final Big East run

Jim Boeheim & James Southerland (Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports)
James Southerland leads Jim Boeheim's club into the next round vs. Pitt.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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Jim Boeheim thought about the old times.

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On Wednesday, Boeheim, who has been Syracuse’s head coach for 37 years, walked into the Madison Square Garden locker room. Inside the world’s most famous arena, he had no shortage of memories to ponder: Of the 31 Big East tournaments he’s coached here, of the 14 Big East tournament finals his Syracuse teams have played in, of Walter Berry’s block of Pearl Washington’s shot at the buzzer that stole the game from Syracuse in the 1986 final, or of the five other times when Boeheim’s teams walked out of Madison Square Garden as the tournament champions …

… and of the first memory, the first time he walked into Madison Square Garden — the old, old Madison Square Garden — as a sophomore guard for Syracuse.

“Seems like about 50 years ago,” Boeheim said Wednesday. Then he smirked. “Oh, it was 50 years ago.”

When he walked from the locker room to the floor of the Garden on Wednesday, the 68-year-old Boeheim had one more Big East tournament game to coach, so he couldn’t dwell on those memories, or of what this final Big East tournament meant to him. He did his typical Boeheim histrionics courtside all game — squinting his eyes, throwing up his arms at a dubious call, yelling at point guard Michael Carter-Williams for not being aggressive enough on a drive to the hoop.

But in the end his Syracuse Orange beat an overmatched Seton Hall team. Boeheim’s team won 75-63 in a game that was tied at the half but saw Syracuse run away with it in the final 20 minutes. That means Boeheim will get to coach at least one more game in the greatest conference tournament in college hoops. Appropriately, that game will be Thursday against Pitt, the team that’s joining Syracuse in a divorce from the crumbling Big East and a marriage to the ACC next season.

Some people like change. Jim Boeheim does not. He was born in Lyons, NY, the son of an undertaker. He went all of 50 miles away for college. He never left Syracuse, and calls it the greatest place on earth. He was dragged against his wishes from the old home of Syracuse basketball, Manley Field House, and into the Carrier Dome. He was dragged against his wishes into the Big East when it was formed in 1979. And he wasn’t exactly leading the charge for Syracuse to say goodbye to the conference that over the past three decades has grown to fit him like a glove.

It has been a difficult couple of years for the Big East. It’s been an equally difficult couple of years for the only coach there for its founding — and Boeheim is now there for the end of the Big East as we have known it. The announcement of Syracuse and Pitt leaving the Big East came the same month that Dave Gavitt, the founder of the Big East and a close Boeheim friend, died.

Shortly after came news reports that unfairly put Syracuse in the same light as Jerry Sandusky-tainted Penn State by accusing longtime Boeheim assistant Bernie Fine of sexual abuse, and unfairly put Boeheim in the same light as Joe Paterno. Federal authorities later ended a lengthy investigation of Fine after finding no evidence of the claims.

As the Big East showed signs of wear, so did Boeheim. He responded with anger toward the alleged sex abuse victims at the first news conference after the original reports surfaced. His basketball program became a target in an NCAA investigation about players violating the school’s drug policies. Earlier this season, he called an ESPN reporter an “idiot” and a “disloyal person” at a postgame news conference.

Then, after a 22-point loss in the final game of the historic Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry, Boeheim said this: “I’m pretty much ready to go play golf some place. If I was 40 years old, I’d be real upset.”

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All of this sounded like a coach on the way out. So speculation began that while Syracuse would move to the ACC, Boeheim would not come with, instead heading toward retirement. The speculation was compounded when the official Syracuse Twitter account retweeted (but later deleted) a blog post that said Boeheim might be retiring.

All this speculation — and it is merely speculation as Boeheim said he has no plans to retire and hasn’t given it a thought — misses the bigger story: This is Boeheim’s final Big East tournament and the final Big East tournament as we’ve known it, and no coach has a stronger link with his conference as Boeheim does the Big East.

So as the conference evolves into a new form that Boeheim won’t be part of, the man who has always hated change is once against forced into it. In a way, it’s the story of today’s college basketball, where even the most famous of coaches aren’t in control of their own destiny.

Syracuse fans looking for more Big East memories in March were treated to at least one more on Wednesday. Boeheim’s team played a sluggish first half, so sluggish that when Boeheim went back into the locker room tied 34-34 at halftime to a Seton Hall team that won only three Big East games all year, Boeheim felt like the Orange were winning.

When the second half began, Syracuse’s Carter-Williams had a beautiful penetration then feed to big man Rakeem Christmas in the paint, which gave Carter-Williams one of his Big East tournament record-tying 14 assists, and gave Syracuse its first lead of the game.

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The best note of all for Syracuse was this: It was finally hitting shots. The team that had been stone-cold from the field for the past month — it shot less than 32 percent and scored only 39 points in its final regular-season game against Georgetown — got hot, especially the man who is the key to its offensive spacing, James Southerland.

The senior forward hit 6 of 9 3-pointers vs. Seton Hall. Another bright spot in the Syracuse win was Brandon Triche, who only had made one of his last 17 3-point attempts but made two on Wednesday and scored 17 points.

“I haven’t made a 3-pointer in like a month, so I figured I’d celebrate a little bit,” Triche said.

Boeheim isn’t one to celebrate, especially not after an opening-round game against a team that’s 129th in the nation in RPI. As he walked off the court, Syracuse fans shouted his name. One man tried to hand him his baby for a hug, but Boeheim just walked past and into the tunnel.

People will continue to speculate: Will this final Big East tournament also be part of Boeheim’s final March run at Syracuse? Boeheim said he doesn’t listen to that. He’s concentrating on the next game, when Syracuse will have to take on the most underrated team in the conference in Pitt. He’s concentrating on the next season, when Syracuse will join the ACC in what might become the toughest basketball conference ever created.

“You take the hand you’re dealt,” Boeheim said. “I’ll miss this, but I won’t miss it for long.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Syracuse, Seton Hall

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