The Aztecs open the NCAA Tournament on Friday as historic Hinkle Field House, where they shot the movie ‘Hoosiers’ about that legendary 1954 high school team, the move featuring Gene Hackman.
SDSU will face a piece of history in Jim Boeheim, who has coached the Orange for 45-years. He was one of the architects in the building of the Big East Conference. His games with the legendary John Thompson and the Georgetown Hoyas are iconic in nature.
Now Syracuse plays in the ACC, and those rivals are Duke-North Carolina and Virginia.
The Orange have been spectacular during this Boeheim run at the Carrier Dome.
Longtime Utica OD sports writer John Pitarresi has covered the Orange during this halcyon era. A close up look:
By JOHN PITARRESI
Syracuse is in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Of course, the Orange are. Aren’t they always?
Pretty much, but lately it has been by the skin of their teeth.
Though many SU fans tend to think their guys are owed a spot in the Big Dance every year, Jim Boeheim’s team has become a frequent resident on the bubble in recent seasons.
They were floating along in that perilous spot again this year until earning a berth after they gave Virginia everything they had in a last second loss In the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last week.
So, the Orange are in and play San Diego State in a first round game March 19.
How did they get there? It’s hard to say. This is a mystifying team that was up and down most of the season until winning three in a row before the UVA loss.
The Orange, 16-9, aren’t outstanding by most
statistical measures, although they do rank in the top 20 in the nation in free throw percentage, steals,and blocks. They have some major flaws. They lack brawn on the front line, so they often have trouble
on the boards, and the defense has been lax at times. They gave up 52 points in the first half at Duke last month.
They have pluses, though, and right now the biggest one is Buddy Boeheim, the boss’s son. If anyone
ever thought the 6-6 junior guard plays because of nepotism – and there were more than a few – they
should be embarrassed by now. Boeheim is SU’s leading scorer at 17.1 points per game, he’s up to .373
from long range, and he’s scored 26, 17, 27 and 31 points in his last four games.
Boeheim might not be a great athlete – although he is better than he looks – but he knows how to play the game, as you would expect from a gym rat coach’s son. He handles well, usually knows when to
shoot, gets rid of the ball quickly, has great form, and recognizes when he has the advantage, as demonstrated by his recent tendency to take smaller defenders into the paint and shoot over them or kick the ball out for open shots. Big, quick guards can give him trouble and defend him well, but no one
Boeheim isn’t the only weapon. Illinois transfer Alan Griffin is averaging 14.7 points and is a threat to go off at any time. He has speed, can get to the rim, and is a good 3-point shooter.
Sophomore forward Quincy Guerrier has played well, averaging 14.3 points and 8.8 rebounds, is tough inside, and is going to get better and better. Veteran Marek Dolezaj remains an important contributor, playing a smart all-around game, seeing the court and distributing the ball nicely, averaging 9.9 points, and taking more
hard charges than maybe his 6-foot-10, 200-pound body can stand.
Starting guard Joe Girard, up and down along with the team all season, averages 9.9 points, and sophomore forward Kadary Richmond is at 6.4 and is a defensive ace. Young forwards Robert Braswell and Jesse Edwards (6-foot-11) are likely to see a lot of action against San Diego State.
That crew probably is playing its best basketball of the season right now, moving the ball well and getting good looks, playing reasonably well on defense, and pressing with great effect when needed.
Defensive rebounding remains a weakness, and a bad night on the boards combined with a poor shooting night can put SU in a tough spot. Otherwise the Orange are capable of handling almost anyone
in the tournament.
This is Boeheim’s 45 th season as coach at his alma mater, and he’s piled up a 1,081-408 record, has never had a losing season, made the NCAA tournament three dozen times, reached the Final Four five times, and won a national championship, in 2003. He’s an ultra-competitive person – he was a very good player himself – is not warm and fuzzy, and has his faults – he has not been a noted disciplinarian, but who knows what happens behind the scenes? – but that is a resume few can match, and that’s why he is in the Hall of Fame.
Boeheim turned 76 in November, and the popular belief is that he will retire when Buddy graduates. Don’t bet on it. Unless his wife and family demand otherwise, they will have to drag him off the court by
his heels. He can’t live without basketball.
Boeheim has had to make the transition from the old Big East to the ACC, and it hasn’t been easy. Sanctions following the Fab Melo eligibility fiasco of 2012 – including Boeheim being suspended and
athletic director Daryl Gross losing his job – undoubtedly hurt in terms of recruiting and reputation, but the blowback is no longer a factor.
The Orange have been somewhat better than .500 in conference play
(79-65) since joining the league in 2012-13, they made the NCAA tourney five of the last six years – 2019-20 doesn’t count – and went to the Final Four in 2016.
By contrast, the Big East was no cakewalk for SU, but the Orange almost always were among the league’s top teams, had only two losing conference campaigns in 34 seasons, and almost always were nationally ranked at the end of the year.
Right now, and for a long time, Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia have been the big dogs in the ACC. Joining that group is going to take a while longer for the Orange.