Orange Fizz


Another UConn Title is a Bad Reminder for Syracuse Fans

Once upon a time, Syracuse was the bully. Once upon a time, the Orange ruled northeast basketball. Once upon a time, SU looked down its nose at the ragged, pathetic program four hours to the east. During the ’80s, Jim Boeheim built Syracuse into a powerhouse as a perennial tournament team, collected 5-star recruits, packed 28,000 fans inside the raucous Carrier Dome, and played for a national championship. They mattered.

During the ’80s, UConn never even made it to the NCAA Tournament.

The Huskies were in the Big East as mere punching bags for SU, Georgetown, St. John’s, and Villanova. But Jim Calhoun showed up in ’86, and began to construct a Death Star. Located closer to New York City and Boston than Syracuse, and via a tireless, maniacal work ethic (and questionable morals), Calhoun dragged the program into the big time in ’90. The Huskies won 31 games, took home the regular season Big East crown, and the tournament championship, then went all the way to the Elite 8. That was the turning point of the rivalry, because it set the blueprint for the next decade.

In the ’90s, UConn was ascending while Syracuse had flat-lined. Both teams were perennial tournament squads, and SU made the national championship game in ’96. But it was hit or miss in that decade for SU. In ’93 they were ineligible, in ’97 they went to the NIT, and two other times they failed to win a game in the tourney. UConn went to three Elite 8’s and the Sweet 16 another three times in the ’90s. The tug of war was turning. And then the dawn of the millenium came.

As a 1-seed, Rip Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin delivered Calhoun and the Huskies their first national championship in ’99. The Huskies had finished a job SU had come up short in ’87 and ’96. The pressure was on in CNY. UConn had a banner while SU didn’t. Carmelo Anthony, Jim Boeheim and SU answered four years later with their magical run to a title. 1-1 draw. The world was right again.

But since then, it’s been a demolition. In ’04 as a 2-seed, UConn won again behind the top pick in the NBA Draft Emeka Okafor. UConn 2-1.

Seven years later, they did it again. In ’11 as a 3-seed, Kemba Walker put together one of the greatest March runs ever. The Huskies cut down the nets. Calhoun had his third title in 12 years. UConn 3. Syracuse 1.

It was another pivot point for the rivalry. Calhoun started to lose it, the program was under NCAA scrutiny, so he was pushed out. Realignment shook the country, and Syracuse had escaped the deteriorating Big East for the powerful ACC. UConn was left scrambling, and without a power conference invite had to mope over to the American. How embarrassing. The Huskies’ rivals were now USF, UCF and Houston. Kevin Ollie took over. Syracuse was stable and had jumped back on top of the duel.

But in ’14, Shabazz Napier happened, and somehow as a 7-seed UConn won another title. UConn 4-1. And then three years ago, they jettisoned the AAC to come back to the Big East, while sending their football program to Siberia. Who cares, they said in Storrs. “We’re a basketball school.” Syracuse fans watch the ACC Tournment in Greensboro and try to care. But it’s not like going to MSG and arguing with the old Big East rivals. There’s no juice on Tobacco Road. There’s no Devendorf standing on scorer’s tables. There’s no 6OT wars. That’ll never be our tournament. We’re tourists in the Carolinas for a few days.

And now with a coach who will be there for a long time (Danny Hurley is 50), and the backdrop of a new Big East that has three champions in 7 years, it’s good to be a Husky. UConn no longer has to pretend to support a middling football program that diverts resources with misguided ambition. UConn has won again. That’s five championships since ’99.

UConn 5. Syracuse 1. And SU now has to reboot after an exhausting ending to the Boeheim dance.

It’ll never be an equal rivalry ever again. We’ll never see Syracuse win the next four national titles between these two programs. UConn did more with less in the ’80s, then more with the same in the ’90s, then kept finding way to reinvent itself. And they get to bask in the MSG good stuff, and the rivalries that matter, and look up at yet another banner, as Syracuse fans reminisce over footage from 20 years ago. It’s all so tough to swallow.

The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.


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