After Syracuse’s dominating win over Marquette in the Elite 8, Jim Boeheim joked about how he goes to the Final Four once every decade. There was 1987, 1996, 2003 and now 2013. It’s an amazing testament to Boeheim’s longevity and ability to stay relevant and competitive for four decades. While these four peak years have spanned nearly 40, that he only has these four trips has been a source of frustration for SU fans over the years.
A coach of Boeheim’s stature really should have more. Mike Krzyzewski has an incredible 11 trips. Tom Izzo had a period starting in the late 90’s where he went to 6 in a dozen years. With Orange teams good enough for 920+ wins, it’s a fair criticism to point out. However as Boeheim’s career winds down, it’s pretty clear his program is trending up. Consider:
You can make an a really solid argument that Syracuse is Fab Melo being suspended away from being this back-to-back Final Fours. If you take it a step further, you could reasonably theorize Arinze Onuaku’s hurt quad in 2010 derailed another. Suddenly we’re talking about 3 nets in 4 years which is ultra rarified air, especially in the days of the one-and-done.
The only other time of Boeheim’s tenure as dominant as this is the mid-to-late ’80s, when SU was pulling in Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly, Sherman Douglas, Pearl Washington and Billy Owens. While many Orange fans may beat their chests because this proves how great SU has once again become, I had a different reaction: why is it happening now?
What has happened over the past 5-6 years that has turned a school that had ultra highs in the ’80s, but some lean times in the ’90s, into a perennial Final Four contender. There are two crystal clear answers.
The caliber of player Syracuse has recruited in recent years has skyrocketed. Andy Rautins wound up being a tremendous player for SU, but he’s not in the same class as Dion Waiters. If Michael Carter-Williams played for four years like Rautins did, he’d break records for assists, steals, and surge up the scoring list too.
The national championship in ’03 and the building of the Melo Center was the starting point. Having elite facilities matters and since Carmelo cut the check, snowy Central New York has become a location destination for the best high school players (and transfers: Wes Johnson and Michael Gbinije) around the country.
The other reason Syracuse is trending up was clear while watching Marquette brick shot after shot. The zone takes advantage of a modern college hoops landscape littered with bad offense. Many of us scream about the officiating, and that the game is way too physical. But a huge part of the problem is guys simply can’t shoot.
There’s a rhythm to a game where the ball is reversed to a shooter and he knocks down the shot. Often now that shot is missed, and we wind up with the 39 points Marquette put up in a regional semi-final or 39 that Syracuse put up on the same court against Georgetown to close the regular season.
Shooting is how you beat a zone. In the 2-3, the help is always there and you’ve got to make outside shots or it just packs in more. What happens when two super athletic 6’8” wings, and an equally long 6’9” center start to jam the lane? Ask Cody Zeller. Add 6’6” and 6’4” guards also crashing down. It’s enough to drive an offensive player insane.
Boeheim decided to stop practicing man-to-man a few years ago because if he went exclusively zone he could do more with it. The SU 2-3 has improved in recent years, and any defense becomes stronger with more talented players. Syracuse is getting more of them, but it’s impossible to watch four tourney teams shoot 14-91 against you from deep without them missing some open looks.
Syracuse has done an amazing job all tournament of challenging almost every shot, but elite players are supposed to make challenged shots. It’s all about timing. Boeheim’s best players are coming at in an era where the skill to beat his unique style isn’t available in great quantity. Even with the departures of Brandon Triche and James Southerland and maybe Carter-Williams, SU will be right back in position to contend next year. The question right now isn’t whether this is Boeheim’s final run. It’s whether Boeheim’s biggest success is just beginning.
Posted: Craig Hoffman