March Madness is upon us and nowhere is it as intense as it is in Syracuse, N.Y. After sitting on the sidelines for two years in a row, the Orange is seeded No. 3 in the South Region of the NCAA championship and will face Stephen F. Austin, a No. 14 seed, on Friday at 12:15 p.m. in Miami.
To understand the typical Orange basketball fan, you need to know a little bit about Syracuse.
First, the city has little in the way of professional sports and no pro or even semi-pro basketball affiliate.
Syracuse has a minor league baseball team and a minor league hockey team, but fans of these sports seem to be somewhat insular, and unless either of these teams is in a playoff or championship run, there isn't a lot of either Crunch or Chiefs mania!
Second, Orange sports fans have been forced to endure the worst four-year run in the school's 119 years of football history, watching the once-mighty Orange disintegrate into such a disgraceful condition that the head coach, Greg Robinson, was ultimately fired.
We hung our heads in shame as the team drew national mockery, and while new head coach Doug Marrone appears to be on the right track, it will be years until SU football can return to even a semblance of its former self.
Finally, there's the weather. Winters in Central New York can be downright nasty with snow starting as early as mid-October and lasting well into April, sometimes, even May.
There are plenty of outdoor activities, but for those of us who prefer to stay warm and avoid bodily injury, most of the winter is spent either home-bound or bar-bound.
The beginning of the college basketball season normally coincides with the beginning of the snowy weather. We may dread the beginning of winter, but we know that Orange hoops is on the way and that certainly softens the blow.
The onset of the Big East season helps us overcome the inevitable post-holiday slump and the run towards March Madness helps ease us into spring. When things are going well, SU hoops is a balm for the collective psyche of the community.
It's not just Syracuse University students who live and breathe Orange. The entire community becomes invested in this team, celebrating its victories and mourning its losses.
I daresay there were a lot of very tired people in Central New York last Friday morning after having stayed up to see the end of Syracuse's now-historic six-overtime victory against Connecticut.
In 2003, as Syracuse moved steadily towards the Final Four, Orange fever reached a frenetic pitch. The Syracuse newspaper printed a "Let's Go Orange" banner and people had them on their front doors, offices, and even their cars.
After SU won the national championship that year, the city sponsored a parade down Salina Street, Syracuse's main drag, and the team received a key to the city.
Thousands of people turned out to cheer a team that had made us all proud. Carmelo Anthony's car was mobbed with fans and Syracuse unified under a big orange umbrella.
Even before the 2008-09 season began, fans were already whispering that this could be one of those years.
Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins were returning to the lineup and two highly-touted freshmen, Mookie Jones and Kris Joseph, promised much needed depth.
Jonny Flynn was returning after a spectacular freshman season, and after spending part of the summer at LeBron James' basketball camp, appeared to be better than ever.
This team, which started out strong, has had its ups and downs, but has already given us some remarkable moments of pride.
Early in the season, SU cracked the AP and ESPN polls, peaking at No. 8 before running into some problems during a gauntlet of games against top-ranked Big East teams in the final weeks of the season.
As a result of their gutsy showing in the Big East tournament and a solid body of work during the regular season, the Orange is back in the NCAA tournament.
Their No. 3 seed is even more remarkable, considering the team was shut out of the Big Dance for the past two years.
And the buzz is building.
Could this be the team that will take us back to the Final Four? SU fans are always cautious when making predictions. In previous years, SU has lost some first and second round games that have left fans stunned.
But something magical happened in Madison Square Garden and this team has been transformed.
And then there's Jonny Flynn!
Friday afternoon, SU fans will be gathered around TVs in bars, at home, and even in their offices. We'll wear our SU gear to work and eat pizza and wings.
We will work little, stay up late, and live and breathe Orange for the duration. And, win or lose, when this team finally returns to the 'Cuse, we'll be out there cheering for them.
Let the games begin!
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