Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen… Again

By Dan Mezzalingua

     The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Sweet 16 matchups are just days away. Most people never would have expected some of the teams that are preparing to play to even make it past the first round.

     Yet, No. 11 Loyola University Chicago, who pulled off two major upsets over No. 6 Miami and No. 3 Tennessee, sets off to face the No. 7 Nevada Wolf Pack, who rallied from a 22-point deficit to defeat Cincinnati, ranked No. 2. Kansas State, a No. 9 seed, continues to dance as well, and so does Florida State (also seeded ninth) and Texas A&M (seeded seventh). This is evidence as to why this erratic tournament is called “March Madness!”

     In that list of matchups sits another low-seeded team that seems all-too-familiar — the Syracuse Orange. Unlike the other squads who are on a magical tournament run, the No. 11 seed Orange has been here before. Just two years ago, Syracuse patiently waited on the bubble and was eventually selected to be in the NCAA tournament. Just like this year’s team, the 2015-16 Orange “shouldn’t have made the tournament,” according to many college basketball analysts and fans. However, ‘Cuse proved the critics wrong, and went on a historical run to make the Final Four.

     This year, Syracuse’s Sweet 16 arrival is bringing a sense of déjà vu to the basketball world. This unordinary, yet common sequence of events bring up many curiosities as to why the Orange always seem to be a threat.

     It’s because of the remarkable coaching the team has from Jim Boeheim, who has been the head coach at the university for 42 seasons.

     The 73-year-old has coached unbelievable talent in past seasons, such as Carmelo Anthony, who helped Boeheim win his first National Championship in 2003, or Michael Carter-Williams and C.J. Fair, who he coached in a 2013 Final Four meeting. While his past success has certainly helped build his legacy, Boeheim has truly established his greatness in the past couple of seasons.

     Boeheim and the program went through a scandal in 2012 for academic misconduct (among other infractions). The Orange immediately started losing recruits due to punishments set by the NCAA, including a disallowance of 12 scholarships over four years.

     The punishments were served, and the situation is in the past. The scandal may or may not have anything to do with the rosters that Syracuse has had in recent years, but regardless, Syracuse has struggled with numbers this season. After multiple players dealt with injuries throughout the season, Boeheim has been forced to use a small rotation of about seven players.

     The starting lineup — consisting of Frank Howard, Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, and Paschal Chukwu — have played the majority of minutes in games, with the occasional substitutions of forward Matthew Moyer and center Bourama Sidibe.

     According to SB Nation, the 2017-18 starting five has played more minutes than any other starting lineup in modern Syracuse basketball history. Battle plays the most minutes per game in the NCAA (39.0 MPG), and Howard plays the second-most (38.4 MPG). Not far behind the two guards is Brissett, a forward, who ranks sixth for most minutes per game (38.1 MPG).

     Syracuse has had success in the NCAA tournament because Boeheim sets a steady pace throughout the game to conserve his players’ energy, whether it’s through the 2-3 zone or the offensive sets.

     The Orange had a taste of their lack of depth on the bench nearing the end of the game against the No. 3 seeded Michigan State Spartans. Howard had fouled out with 13 points, and Chukwu and Sidibe each had four. Dolezaj, a pivotal piece of the team, also had four. Boeheim then put in Braendon Bayer, a former walk-on who’d just played 11 minutes all season.

     The Orange had their backs against the wall. They were barely holding on against a team who’d gone 30-5 all season. While all hope was low, it was the perfect opportunity for Boeheim to prove that he can coach a team to victory — no matter the circumstances.

     Syracuse held off the Spartans, winning the contest 55-53, a complete shock to everyone. Syracuse was out-rebounded, 51-31. They made one three-pointer, and they had just three assists in the game. They still managed to beat one of the most dominant teams in the country.

     Boeheim and the Orange showed once again that they’ll demand respect when underestimated.

     Next on the schedule tomorrow night is No. 2 Duke, who beat the Orange, 60-44, earlier in the season. However, with the momentum that Syracuse is currently holding, another upset could very well happen. A victory from the Orange would lead them to the Elite Eight, but more significantly, it could further build on Boeheim’s legacy.

     Regardless of the outcome between the Orange and the Blue Devils, Jimmy B. has proved — by taking ‘Cuse from the First Four to the Sweet Sixteen—why he will stand as one of the best coaches in college basketball history.