Jim Boeheim is crusty and cranky. He scoffs at your criticisms, he belittles the critics. He has run Syracuse basketball’s kingdom for nearly 50 years, and he will remind you of it every chance he gets. Boeheim’s record is impregnable. His status as an icon is unmovable. But his effectiveness has seemed to wear thin in recent years.
Once upon a time, in the heyday of the Big East, Syracuse was one of the nation’s greatest powers. The biggest recruits, the biggest crowds, the biggest games, all marched through SU. Pearl Washington. Derrick Coleman. Sherman Douglas. Billy Owens. The peak was high. The peak was wild.
Syracuse’s reign as a Big East power never wavered, through John Wallace, Carmelo Anthony, and Jonny Flynn. The Big East Tournaments were dream-like. The winning remained. The elusive national championship was finally captured. Boeheim had completed the circle.
But since the move to the ACC, things have been much shakier, much less certain. For every huge recruiting win, like Fab Melo, there’s been a black eye, downturn, or Fab Melo’s recruiting and eligibility violations. What was once a power that may have had a few down seasons, but always turned back up, it’s been a relatively mediocre decade. From the early ’80s through the early 2010’s, you could expect 25+ wins, and a top 3-seed at MSG. But now that seems like dreamland.
Since ’14, Syracuse has only topped 20 wins twice, a jarring stat. While SU was always better than the flotsam of the Big East (Rutgers, Seton Hall, DePaul, Boston College), the same can’t be said for the ACC. SU routinely loses to even the bottom feeders of Tobacco Road. In the last 8 years, the Orange’s best finish in league play was a tie for sixth. Oy.
The two Final Four runs aside, the now predictable “playing possum until March” has even worn thin. What does it mean if you can’t beat Virginia Tech or Wake Forest, but win two games in the NCAA Tournament? Is that a good season or a bad one? And recruiting has leveled off significantly.
Which is why the lassoing of the Class of ’22, now adding Judah Mintz, is a significant development. If Boeheim were to hand the current program over to Adrian Autry or Gerry McNamara, it would be an underwhelming baton pass. Banking on your sons, Ivy League transfers, and three-star kids isn’t a winning formula in a league with Duke, UNC and other perennial powers. But this recruiting class could change the calculus.
This feels like Boeheim’s final rodeo, even if it hasn’t been announced. Like Coach K, he should be happily taking his victory tour a year from now, letting everyone tell him how great he was. But unlike K, he hasn’t had multiple NBA Lottery picks to carry him recently. Another desultory sub-.500 campaign, perhaps a second-straight non-tourney year, would be brutal to inherit. Some think the program might never recover.
But if this class helps propel the Orange back into the top 25, perhaps top 15, and is a contender in the ACC, and a top-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, then the new staff can capitalize on that momentum. Boeheim has called this recruiting class perhaps his best ever. Adding a dynamic player like Mintz only enhances that. Maybe Boeheim held on too long. Maybe there’s been a slow erosion of the program for the last decade. But Mintz and the Class of ’22 gives SU its best shot at keeping the flame aglow on the Hill.