Syracuse Basketball: A Season of Firsts

Gene SiudutContributor IIIFebruary 27, 2012

Syracuse Basketball: A Season of Firsts

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    College basketball and Syracuse University are on a break.

    Syracuse (29-1, 16-1 Big East) men’s basketball is enjoying a week off after pulling out a thrilling victory Saturday night over the University of Connecticut (17-11, 8-9,) 71-69, in Storrs, Conn.

    The Orange will close out its regular season at home on Saturday, March 3, against Louisville at 4 p.m.

    While Syracuse takes this week to lick its wounds and prepare for the post season, it’s a good time to look back at some of the highlights of this season. The second-ranked Orange started the season at No. 5 in the country and hasn’t fallen below that ranking this entire campaign.

    From an electric start to the season to exorcising old demons, this has been a magical season for Syracuse and its head coach, Jim Boeheim. Boeheim passed North Carolina stalwart, Dean Smith on the all-time wins list for Division 1 coaches, with only Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski ahead.

    Boeheim would probably say that he’s not doing anything different than he normally does, but his depth on the bench has provided a different look for Syracuse, which, in years past, has only gone about seven or eight players deep. This season’s edition of the Orange is remarkable for the fact that it has 10 players who average at least 11 minutes per game. This has allowed Syracuse to keep its players’ legs fresh and overcome an off night from any of its ranks.

    Here’s a look at some of the finer points of the Syracuse season.

First Win at Gampel Pavilion

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    The Syracuse Orange has only played four games at Connecticut’s on-campus home, Gampel Pavilion, but has come up empty in all four contests. UConn also plays home games at the Hartford Civic Center.

    The last three games Syracuse played at Gampel Pavilion were lost by a combined 47 points, so this is no small feat. While Syracuse’s biggest rival is Georgetown, UConn comes in about 1-A in the ranking of teams the Orange despise.

    To the Orange nation, if Syracuse were a mama bear, UConn would be the camper trying to steal her cub.

    In the last 13 years, Syracuse and UConn have combined for four NCAA Championships. That’s 30 percent, but for the Orange, the problem is that UConn has three of them. While Jim Boeheim is 15 wins ahead of Jim Calhoun on the all-time wins list, Calhoun has the 3:1 edge where it’s important.

    Any win over UConn is sweet. A win in a place where Syracuse hasn’t been able to get close, is all the sweeter.

Finally Beat Louisville

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    Louisville coach Rick Pitino was Jim Boeheim’s first hire as a head coach for Syracuse in 1976. Pitino stayed on as an assistant for Boeheim until 1978 when he took the job as a 25-year-old head coach of Boston University.

    Pitino’s been a thorn in Syracuse’s side ever since, with no thorn bigger than in 1996 when Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats defeated the John Wallace-led Orangemen in the national championship game. Through the years, Pitino has found a way to stifle the Syracuse 2-3 zone. Recently, at Louisville, Pitino has won the last seven in the series including a win against Syracuse when it was the No. 1 team in the country to close the 2010 regular season.

    On Feb. 13, that all changed with a thrilling victory in which Louisville had a chance to win the game at home, but a costly turnover in the lane in the closing seconds sealed the first Syracuse victory over Louisville since 2006.

    A short second behind that victory was the drubbing of Pitt, which was the first win against the Panthers in five tries.

    The Orange closes its season at home against Louisville on Saturday and with a win will have 30 regular season victories heading into the Big East Tournament.

    While that 30th win will be nice for Orange fans, win 39 will fulfill the season.

Big East Win No. 400

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    The Syracuse win over Connecticut gave coach Jim Boeheim win No. 400 in the Big East, good for most wins all-time in conference. It also gave Syracuse its 10th Big East Regular season title, which ties UConn for most all-time.

    With Syracuse leaving the Big East for ACC, Boeheim’s standard will be sought after for years to come. Syracuse may spend another year or two in the Big East, so he could add to that number, but as it stands among active coaches in the conference, Jim Calhoun is a distant second by almost 100 wins and far off in the distance in third is Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, who trails by almost 250 wins. Jamie Dixon is fourth, trailing by nearly 300.

    Considering the pressure coaches have to win combined with the fact that they just don’t stay at one school for an extended period of time, Boeheim’s record may stand the test of time.

    To get a full grasp of Boeheim’s excellence, one need only look at his 20-win season record. In 36 seasons, Jim Boeheim has amassed 34 20-win seasons. The two seasons he didn’t get 20 wins were 96-97 when he won 19 and 81-82 when he won 16.

    The Big East has been two things since its inception: dominant and very good.  These are two words that would describe Boeheim just fine, too.

Best Start to a Season

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    With Syracuse’s defeat of Pittsburgh in mid-January, Syracuse beat its own record for wins to start a season.

    Win No. 20 also gave Syracuse a tie with Boston College for the most wins to start a season in Big East history. Syracuse would not break the deadlock with B.C. as it fell to Notre Dame in its next game.

    While the Orange has gone through the season with only that Notre Dame blemish on its record, all has not been a breeze. Syracuse has struggled at times for different reasons. Some games the shooting touch goes away. Sometimes there were defensive lapses. Sometimes the Orange’s opponent would shoot the lights out.

    Regardless of adversity, save for Notre Dame, the Orange has found a way to stay close and finish its games on top. Syracuse’s ability to overcome bad showings is a quality that should help the Orange during March and is far more valuable than winning every game by a blowout.

Best Season Ever

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    OK, it won’t be the best season ever if it ends without the Orange cutting down the nets in New Orleans.

    Depending on the year, Syracuse has either wonderful or horrible memories of New Orleans. In 1987, Keith Smart snuck his way into the Syracuse lexicon, just as Mookie Wilson snuck into the Red Sox’s the year before.

    In 2003, Carmelo Anthony led a Syracuse push to Bourbon Street that ended with Jim Boeheim finally earning that championship he’d been searching for since 1976.

    With 29 wins against one loss, Syracuse has already surpassed its own record for wins in a regular season with one still to go.

    Its 16 wins in the Big East are tied for second-best all time. Louisville had 16 Big East wins in ’08-’09, and with a home win against the Cardinals on Saturday, Syracuse would tie the ’95-’96 UConn team with 17 for most conference wins ever.

    Regular season wins are a small part of the Syracuse picture, but they tell the story of a special team nonetheless.

    As far as Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange are concerned, there is a countdown to 10 wins from here on out.

    Louisville is one, the Big East Tournament is three and the NCAA tournament is six.

    Of course, Boeheim would trade any of the first four to get the last six.