FOX Sports Exclusive
A run unlike any we have ever seen
Q: Has any college basketball team ever been through the up-and-down odyssey endured by the Syracuse program over the past 17 months?
To expand on that: No team has even come close. Not the Kentucky program that won a national title in 2012, subsequently saw six players drafted into the NBA, then lost in the first round of the NIT last month. Not the Florida Gulf Coast team that came from nowhere to beat Georgetown, become the first 15-seed to make the Sweet Sixteen, and briefly capture the imagination of a nation. Not the Wichita State team that lost all five starters from last season, went through an injury-plagued 2012-13 regular season, then shocked us all by making this year’s Final Four.
Let’s recap the last 17 months in the life of Syracuse basketball and Jim Boeheim:
In November 2011, shortly after the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal erupted at Penn State, longtime Boeheim assistant Bernie Fine was accused on ESPN of sexually abusing former ball boys on the team; he was fired.
Then Boeheim hung black curtains at the practice facility to keep out pesky news cameras trying to get footage of players in the days after the ESPN report.
Then, after that bubble mentality symbolized by those black curtains made the players work even harder in practice and made them bond as a team, Syracuse ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the country and appeared to be the main obstacle to Kentucky’s air of inevitability in heading toward its national title.
Then the school announced it self-reported possible violations of its internal drug policy by former members of the team, and that the NCAA was investigating.
Then the team’s top defensive player, seven-footer Fab Melo, was deemed academically ineligible days before last year’s NCAA tournament.
Then the team made an improbable run to last season’s Elite Eight — improbable only because Melo was considered such a vital cog in the Boeheim machine — before being bounced by Ohio State. The game left senior Scoop Jardine, one of the most likable players in recent Syracuse history, bawling outside the locker room after his last game.
Then Boeheim lost three players to the NBA draft and reloaded, bringing this year’s Syracuse team all the way to third in the national rankings.
Then, reminiscent of the season before, 3-point gunner James Southerland suffered from eligibility issues and missed six games, two of them losses.
Then Boeheim went off on an ESPN reporter at a news conference, taking his usual surliness to a new level, and later said he was “ready to go play golf someplace,” which sparked rumors of a pending retirement.
Then Boeheim denied those retirement rumors even as Syracuse was in the middle of a late-season swoon where the Orange lost four of their last five regular-season games, jettisoning the team out of any serious postseason discussion.
Then Syracuse was revealed to have received a letter of preliminary inquiry from the NCAA that alleged “major” violations in the program — all of which fueled more rumors of Boeheim’s retirement.
Then, out of nowhere, Syracuse made a run in the final Big East Tournament as we’ve known it, where the shots finally dropped and Boeheim’s 2-3 zone finally began to coalesce with this year’s team.
And then, finally, in the past few weeks, the team peaked at the perfect time, its 2-3 zone shutting down opponents in the NCAA tournament: holding its Round of 64 opponent to a measly 34 points; then squeaking by Cal; then holding Indiana, one of the best offenses in the country, to 50 points in a Sweet Sixteen game; then obliterating Marquette, 55-39, in an Elite Eight game where Syracuse choked and squeezed Marquette with what Boeheim called the best version of the signature defense he’s run for decades.
How does a program reconcile these sorts of up-and-down emotions? How can a school go from being excoriated for harboring an accused sex offender (the FBI later dropped its case against Fine), to being seen as a redemption story, to being chastised again for possible NCAA violations, to being lifted up as the greatest defensive achievement for one of the greatest all-time college basketball coaches?
It’s dizzying. How can you process all these conflicting emotions, and top them off with — in the middle of Syracuse’s Final Four run this year — the tragedy of point guard Michael Carter-Williams having his childhood home burn down before the Sweet Sixteen?
“Everybody has distractions,” Boeheim said this week. “There’s no team that doesn’t have distractions during the course of the year. That’s part of life. That’s what you have to learn to handle.
“They focused well all year. It’s difficult when you lose four out of five games. But people go through that. Duke lost three games in a row this year. Kansas did. Michigan had a bad stretch. I think most teams have a bad stretch sometime during the course of the year, particularly if you play four games against three teams in the top 15 in the country, you're going to have a bad stretch.”
It’s true: Adversity molds character. When bad things happen to good teams, the teams can crumble or they can rise up. Syracuse has risen up, been knocked down, risen again. Saturday the Orange have their season’s biggest test: Michigan, with likely player-of-the-year point guard Trey Burke and a supporting cast of underclassmen who are peaking at the right time. It’s strength on strength, Syracuse’s currently impenetrable 2-3 zone vs. Michigan’s currently unbeatable offense.
It will be a difficult mountain to climb at the end of this 17-month odyssey: To beat the hottest offense in the nation, and then go on to beat (assuming Louisville takes care of Wichita State) one of the best pressure defenses college basketball has seen in years.
But if Syracuse can pull it off, what better way to end the odyssey: To do the unexpected, to win a national title, and to have Jim Boeheim — the coy old coach who never really shows his hand — top off his second national championship by saying he was only kidding earlier, and he’s actually going to call it quits.
It probably won’t happen.
But who could have guessed the past 17 months could have happened at Syracuse?
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
More Stories From Reid Forgrave