With March upon us, the college basketball world is looking forward.
Selection Sunday is a mere fortnight away, so the top teams are trying to solidify their high seeds and teams on the bubble are trying to find that signature win to help them go dancing.
The Syracuse basketball team will get in the tournament. That much we know. We also know that, at 26-3, the Orange should achieve at least a No. 2 seed, or a top seed with a strong showing in the ACC tournament.
After losing three out of four, the goal is to finish the season strong and get everyone healthy for the big show. We know what to look forward to, so let's take a look back.
Tuesday night's game against Georgia Tech will be the final home game of the season. It will be the last time the senior class that includes Baye Moussa Keita and C.J. Fair will take the Carrier Dome floor.
Fair and Keita are exhibits A and B for how hard work and patience can pay off. They started off their careers as afterthoughts behind upperclassmen. But they worked hard, paid their dues and, now, they are two of the cornerstones of a team with legit aspirations to make a second straight Final Four.
After watching these guys for four years, here are a few things we'd like to say to this year's senior class; a little gratitude for four excellent years.
To Nolan Hart and Russ DeRemer
You didn't think we'd overlook you, did you?
Thank you for keeping the bench warm. Thanks for showing up to practice every day and putting in work knowing you probably weren't going to get in the game. Thanks for always being ready with the high-fives and chest bumps heading into timeouts, and thanks for coming in and giving fans something extra to cheer about during blowouts.
You may not have made many highlight reels, but there is no team without your contributions. Congratulations on great careers.
To Baye Keita
You knew coming in you were never going to be the star of the show. You arrived on campus the same year as Fab Melo, a raw but highly touted center out of Brazil. Not only did you have him ahead of you, but you were behind Rick Jackson, the team's lone senior.
You never needed to be "the man" for Jim Boeheim, though. You settled into your role almost immediately, providing energy and want-to at both ends of the floor off the bench. You were never an offense force. And let's be honest, your hands are so bad, you couldn't catch a cold at the North Pole.
But if there was a loose ball, you were the first guy to hit the floor. If there was a fast break, you never gave up on the play; you chased down opponents to erase their shots, or you cleaned up the mess after a teammate didn't finish.
And now, as a senior, you are part of the foundation of a Top 10 team. All while playing the same role you've always played. Seriously, your numbers look almost identical as those from your freshman year:
- 2010-11: 14.6 min, 2.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.2 BPG
- 2013-14: 15.8 min, 2.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.9 BPG
You're a go-to example for someone whose performance in the box score in no way reflects your importance to your team. Last year's Final Four run doesn't happen without Baye Keita. You were never counted on for your offense, but your defense was always invaluable. Whenever one of the starting centers struggled, there you were to come in and steady the ship.
Stars always get all the attention on great teams. But great teams aren't great without players like Keita.
And to C.J. Fair
Where to even start? The only reason we're even here is because you decided to put off entering the NBA draft and return for your senior season, making countless Syracuse fans jump for joy.
The spotlight must have been blinding at first when, heading into this season, it shone squarely on you for the first time in your career.
Early on, you waited your turn behind Kris Joseph, who rarely sat. But when you did get in, you made plays that teased Orange fans about what was to come. You got rebounds over guys who were bigger than you. You had freakish dunks in traffic and in transition. The Carrier Dome faithful knew they had something special in that lefty No. 5 with the headband.
Then as a sophomore, you jumped into the starting lineup and helped the team to an obscene 34-3 record and a No. 1 seed in the tournament
Last year, all of the focus was on Michael Carter-Williams, a future lottery pick, and Brandon Triche, a senior and the program's all-time leader in games played. James Southerland's eligibility crisis stole headlines for a few weeks, as did freshman Jerami Grant's inspired play in Southerland's absence.
But there you were, quietly leading the team in scoring, rebounding and to a Final Four. Without your 22 points against Michigan, Trey Burke, Mitch McGary and Co. would have run the Orange out of the gym.
Back for your senior swan song, you finally started getting the recognition you deserved. Syracuse was heading into its first year in the ACC, and it was you, the new guy, who was named the conference's preseason Player of the Year.
You were named MVP of the Maui Invitational after getting wins over Minnesota, California and Baylor. After that thunderous dunk against Minnesota, you wore that gash like a badge of honor (no blood, no foul indeed).
Time and again, your team was in need of a bucket late. And time and again, there you were to deliver.
Two straight jumpers against Baylor to push the lead to eight with two to play. Two more at the Garden to stretch a two-point lead to five over St. John's. Countless big shots against Duke. That corner three at Pitt to set up Tyler Ennis for the game-winner. That cold-blooded step-back three at Maryland to keep the Terps at bay and end a two-game skid. What maybe should have been the go-ahead three-point play at Duke.
The list goes on.
You've done it all for your team this year. When Coach Boeheim needed you to go 40 minutes in tight games with a short bench, you did so without batting an eye. You knew the offensive load was going to be on your shoulders, and more often than not you got the job done, only failing to reach double figures in scoring twice all season. Twice. In 29 games.
You will likely go down as an all-timer for Syracuse. Every year, you added a new dimension to your game, and when Boeheim and future coaches are on the recruiting trail, they will point to you as the prime example of how hard work and commitment to the system can pay off.
This year's iteration of Syracuse basketball will go as far as Fair can lead it. If the past four years are any indication, Orange fans have to like their chances.