Syracuse men’s basketball’s 2021-22 season is almost mercifully over. Last night, Jim Boeheim’s squad nearly escaped the Dean Smith Center with a rare win, but lost 88-79 to UNC in overtime. The defeat all but certainly means Syracuse will miss postseason play, barring a spectacular and deep ACC Tournament run. If that were to occur, it may – emphasis on the “may” – push SU into a low NIT seed.
Speaking of Boeheim, it can’t be easy for him to now sit in the unfamiliar position of head coach for an also-ran team. Under Boeheim, SU has only missed postseason play twice, with both absences related to NCAA punishments (one enforced ban and one self-imposed). However, it may come as little surprise that Boeheim isn’t taking the end of this middling season with much grace. His presser after the team’s 97-72 clattering at home against Duke was contentious even for Boeheim standards. If you got distracted by his spats with reporters over the oh-so-outrageous questions about his or his sons’ availability for next year, you may have missed something Boeheim slipped in about his injured center Jesse Edwards.
Edwards, who was thrust into a starting role at the beginning of the year after another serious injury to incumbent center Bourama Sidibe, blossomed over this past Winter. Edwards slowly gained confidence and began producing within the 2-3 zone, and played particularly well during an early February four-game winning streak. However, a broken wrist diagnosed on February 10th ended Edwards’ junior season for good, and SU has gone 2-4 without him. On an already defensively-challenged team, Edwards’ injury was widely viewed as a death blow for the season. Boeheim seems to know that, and touched on it after both the Duke and UNC games.
“I don’t make excuses, but…Jesse’s the difference maker for this team. Period. We wouldn’t have won the four in a row we won if it wasn’t for him. It’s just been too hard to overcome. Frank [Anselem] isn’t ready, Bourama [Sidibe] is trying with everything he can…but he’s not even 50% of what he was.” (Jim Boeheim postgame, 2/26/22)
Looking past the obvious excuse from a guy who says he doesn’t make excuses, Boeheim calling Edwards a “difference maker” is accurate. The team played better when he was healthy, and they’ve played worse since he was injured. Edwards’ size (6’11”, 230 lbs) and solid production may have helped, sure – but against a Duke team with overflowing talent and quite a bit of size, it’s unlikely Jesse would’ve saved the day. In that game, two of SU’s starting five – Jimmy Boeheim and Frank Anselem – heated up for a combined zero field goals, and guard Joe Girard put up just 18 points on 16 shots. Among others, those are a few reasons Syracuse got annihilated. It’s not because their big man couldn’t make like Dikembe Mutombo under the rim. All of this is especially amusing considering how many times Boeheim publicly criticized Edwards both last Spring and this Winter. Et tu, Boeheim?
A few days later, SU came within an inexplicable botched inbound pass away from yanking a win from UNC on the road. Instead, SU fell for the third straight game, and Boeheim had even more to say about Edwards.
“We’ve won three or four close games, and we’ve lost three or four close games…I think if Jesse’s here, we have a good chance to win all 3 games. Without Jesse, I think it’s really hard for us to win those games. We’re getting beat more and more on the boards now and inside defensively.” (Jim Boeheim postgame, 2/28/22)
This one sounds a little less ridiculous considering how well SU played UNC. However, it’s hard to find the “close games” since Edwards’ injury Boeheim is referring to outside of North Carolina. SU got upended by 12 at Virginia Tech, 10 at Notre Dame, and by 25 against Duke. Other than that, he’s spot on – the team’s defense has given up over 260 combined points in its last three L’s.
Ultimately, Boeheim is in an unenviable spot. His team isn’t good, and there isn’t much he can do about it. Jesse Edwards is a good player and will be expected to thrive next year, but there’s a reason why people are asking whether Boeheim will be there to lead that team. When last asked, Boeheim was indignant and adamant about staying. It’s an open question to wonder how much longer that’ll be the case, and Boeheim’s status as head coach of the team will always dictate what sort of foundation the program has. As of right now, that foundation is cracked and in need of imminent repair.