How Carmelo Anthony Changed the NCAA Tournament Forever
Mary Anthony’s only request was that her boy go to college.
In that way, she was like most American mothers.
She’d put the boy through private school on a maintenance worker’s salary, hoping it might put some distance between him and the drug-plagued patch of Baltimore they called home. Now the burden—if one could call it that—was on him.
"I really wanted him to go to get a feel of college life and to see how that education can take your farther,” Anthony would later tell The New York Times. “I told him…your education is important because you have something to fall back on. What are you falling back on?”
Anthony didn't just want her son to get by, she wanted him "to be a leader." She wanted him to thrive.
The fact that Mary Anthony was saying any of this to the New York Times ought to tell you that her boy, Carmelo, was no ordinary boy.
As a senior at basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, Carmelo had averaged 22 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Now the NBA was calling, with whispers that the 6’7” forward could go as high as the lottery.
But the boy’s ambition was no match for his mother’s dictum. Mary Anthony’s son was going to college, and amateur basketball has never been the same.
Syracuse had never won a men’s basketball national championship when Carmelo Anthony arrived on campus in the fall of 2002, and few expected that to change anytime soon.
Preston Shumpert, the program's sixth all-time leading scorer, was off to the professional ranks, and even with Shumpert in the lineup, Jim Boeheim’s team had finished a desultory 23-13 the year prior.
Anthony, the second-rated recruit in his class according to RSCI, was a big-time prospect to be sure. So too was 38th-ranked Gerry McNamara, Anthony’s newest brother in Orange.
But back then there was no sense—either among fans or pundits—that a freshman could transform his team overnight. Previous one-and-done freshmen like Dajuan Wagner, Eddie Griffin, Rodney White, Gerald Wallace, Omar Cook, Jamal Crawford, DerMarr Johnson had all enjoyed great personal success at the college level but left little imprint on the postseason.
In several cases, their teams didn’t even qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Only in the presence of accomplished veteran players—such as those that surrounded Michigan State’s Zach Randolph and Florida’s Donnell Harvey—had a star freshman shone deep into March.
Syracuse, not surprisingly, began the season unranked.
In lock step with those modest expectations, the Orangeman dropped their season opener to Memphis, 70-63, on a neutral court. Anthony, however, was superb. In his first collegiate game, the freshman played all 40 minutes, scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
The AP game report called Anthony “a one-man show,” noting that he appeared unfazed by the bright lights of an arena he would someday grow to know well: Madison Square Garden.
McNamara also logged 38 minutes in the loss, while sophomore forward Hakim Warrick registered 36. Jim Boeheim had cast his lot with the young guys, and that gamble was about to pay dividends.
After the opening-day setback, Syracuse reeled off eleven straight, including wins over Georgia Tech, Seton Hall, Boston College and 11th-ranked Missouri. Anthony scored 20 or more in all but two of those contests, and by streak’s end, the Orangeman were ranked 25th in the AP poll.
Big East play was its usual slog, but Syracuse emerged from the muck with a surprising 13-3 conference record. Along the way, Anthony dropped 29 on West Virginia, 26 on Notre Dame and a career-high 30 against Georgetown.
Syracuse (24-5) entered the NCAA tournament as a three seed, and Anthony went to work. His 20 and 10 were the difference against Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, and he set a new career high with 33 points in Syracuse’s Final Four win over Player of the Year T.J. Ford and his Texas Longhorns. It was the most points ever scored by a freshman in the Final Four.
Anthony and Ford were spotted jawing during the game. When asked afterward to describe the nature of the quarrel, Anthony told reporters, “He told me I was only a freshman and I wasn't supposed to be getting all the calls I was getting.”
By then Ford should have known what Mary Anthony, the New York Times and the basketball world writ large already knew: Camelo Anthony was no ordinary freshman.
He proved it one final time with 20 points and 10 rebounds in the championship game, surviving a late scare from the Kansas Jayhawks to deliver Jim Boeheim his long-awaited first national championship.
Anthony was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, and became the first freshman ever to lead an eventual champion in scoring average, tallying 22.2 points per contest.
The man-among-boys cliché doesn’t quite apply to Carmelo Anthony’s college days, at least not in a visual or palpable sense. Anthony had yet to fill out the frame that would one day make him a low-post nightmare for undersized NBA forwards.
Compared to other recent freshmen standouts, what impressed about Anthony wasn’t his size or athleticism, but rather his preternatural basketball acumen. Commentators lauded Anthony’s unselfishness—if you can believe that now—and raved about his elusive feel for the game.
Division I had seen its share of fantastic freshmen athletes. What it hadn’t seen was a fantastic freshman leader who could elevate a team by the sheer force of his all-around play—at least not in the prep-to-pro era.
Anthony had broken new ground, and younger players were taking note.
Having fulfilled his mother’s request that he spend at least one year in school, Anthony capitalized on the momentum of his breakout college season and declared for the NBA draft. He went third overall to the Denver Nuggets, and soon became one of the pro game’s best overall scorers.
Intrigued by Anthony's ascendance, other top high school prospects began to reconsider the virtues of a stopover year in college.
"I heard a couple guys say they want to be like Carmelo and play one year," Syracuse coach Jim Boehiem told Sports Illustrated in the fall of 2003. "It's like it's a Carmelo rule."
The outside reaction to Syracuse’s triumph was one of eager ambivalence, with the collective awe inspired by Anthony’s excellence juxtaposed against old bromides about waiting ones turn.
New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden captured the public mood with a piece entitled “In Experience vs. Youth, It’s Talent that Wins.”
I don't know if this is good or bad for college basketball. In an industry whose lifeblood is recruiting, the triumph of the Syracuse team anchored by the freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara underscored the impact a recruit can have on a program.
Two years later, the NBA and its players union renegotiated their collective bargaining agreement, settling on a new age limit that required players be either 19 years old or one year removed from high school before entering the NBA draft.
The rule was rooted in Kevin Garnett’s decision to forgo college and declare for the 1995 NBA draft, a move that inspired legions of prep-to-pro imitators, and, in the eyes of some, diluted the league talent pool. But the fingerprints of Anthony’s success are also evident in the NBA’s decision.
By re-routing top prospects to college for a year, the NBA was giving elite prospects a national platform with which to enhance their starpower and increase their commercial appeal—both of which would benefit the league long term.
With the exception of the uber-hyped (see: James, LeBron), high school players are local curiosities. To the extent that these 18-year-olds have any sort of national profile, it’s usually confined to the niche realm of draft cultists and recruiting junkies.
Compare Carmelo Anthony, for example, to Amar’e Stoudemire, the single highest rated played in the high school class of 2002. Stoudemire entered the NBA straight out of high school as a relative unknown. Anthony entered the NBA one year later as a star.
The NBA wants stars. The NBA wants Carmelo Anthony.
College coaches want Carmelo Anthony, too, and many have uprooted their programs in pursuit of the best freshman talent. Kentucky, UCLA and Texas have become virtual one-and-done turnstiles, ushering in an era of upheaval unlike any the college game has ever seen.
In some cases, the talent hoarding has worked. Kentucky won the national championship in 2012 with three freshmen in the starting lineup—all of whom would matriculate to the NBA within months after capturing the crown.
Other times, the constant turnover has had deleterious effects, as chronicled by Sports Illustrated in its 2012 expose of Ben Howland’s UCLA program.
Regardless of outcome, it’s clear that the careful calculus of program building has been fundamentally altered. So too has the college game, which is younger and more volatile than ever before.
A good deal of that can be traced back to Anthony, a player whose achievements have become the modern standard for coaches and prospects in search of instant gratification.
In a quote to Sports Illustrated in 2003, Jim Boeheim prophesied the coming wave of one-and-done freshmen, but warned against the inevitable expectations that would trail Anthony’s success.
"I think freshmen are more ready today,” Boeheim told SI. “But I think as we go on, we're probably going to start to realize how special Carmelo really was.”
A full decade after Syracuse’s triumph, Boeheim’s words ring truer than ever.
Even in an era where every great high school player is essentially forced to attend college, none has accomplished more or left a bigger mark than the one who chose to go.
In ways unforeseen, Mary Anthony had a made a leader of the boy after all.
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