Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 31, 2013

Stiff Defenses By Boeheim, On And Off The Court

One by one over the course of Easter weekend, the identities of college basketball’s Final Four participants became known. More than 24 hours before Louisville claimed the last spot in next weekend’s culmination of March Madness, the first team to punch its ticket to Atlanta was Syracuse. The Orange completed their run through the East bracket with a 53-39 beat down of Marquette late Saturday afternoon. For head coach Jim Boeheim it’s a fourth trip to the Final Four, and his first since 2003 when he led Syracuse to the school’s first national basketball championship. The question hanging over Boeheim as he and the Orange pack for Atlanta is whether this year’s run through the NCAA Tournament might also be his last.

Now 68 years old, Boeheim has quite literally spent his basketball life at the upstate New York university. He enrolled as an undergraduate in 1962, and made the basketball team as a walk-on his freshman year. By the time he was a senior he was the team captain, and along with All-American Dave Bing helped lead the Orange to a 22-6 record and the school’s second berth ever in the NCAA tournament. In the days before bracketology and multi-million dollar television contracts the entire field that year numbered just twenty-two teams. Days before the 1966 tournament entered the history books when Texas Western’s championship-first five black starters defeated heavily favored and all-white Kentucky, Boeheim’s college career ended when Syracuse lost to Duke in the regional finals.

Just three years after graduation Boeheim returned to campus as an assistant coach, and in 1977 he took over the head coaching job when Roy Danforth left for Tulane University. Danforth raised the school’s basketball profile, winning invitations to the tournament in each of his last four years, including an initial trip to the Final Four in 1975. But in the more than three and one-half decades since becoming head coach it has been Boeheim who has built Syracuse into a perennial power.

Boeheim’s 920 wins make him the second winningest Division I coach of all time, behind only Duke’s Mike Kryzewski. Since 73 of Coach K’s victories came at Army, Boeheim holds the record for the most wins at a single school. Boeheim and Syracuse were present at the creation of the Big East Conference in 1979, and he has more conference wins than anyone. He has coached the Orange to nine regular season conference championships, five conference tournament championships, and twenty-eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He’s been named the Big East Coach of the Year four times, and won the Naismith Award as the outstanding men’s basketball coach in the nation in 2010. In 2005 Boeheim was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But after next weekend what lies ahead for the Syracuse basketball team and its long-time coach is uncertainty, both on and off the court. The Big East that Boeheim helped to both create and turn into one of the premier basketball conferences in the country is about to dissolve. The seven Catholic schools that are conference members without football programs are taking their round balls and the conference name and starting anew. Next year Syracuse, lured by the promise of football riches and with only a passing thought about the impact on the basketball program, will join the Atlantic Coast Conference. There even the likes of Jim Boeheim will work in the long shadows of legends Kryzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams. Traditional rivalries and familiar opponents will be gone, replaced by the need to learn the patterns and practices of different teams and a new set of coaching foes.

As this year’s tournament was getting underway reported that the NCAA has been investigating the Syracuse basketball program “for a period of years.” While the report included no specifics about possible rules violations the website’s anonymous source described them as “both major and wide-ranging in nature.” At a news conference prior to his team’s opening game against Montana Boeheim appeared unconcerned with the anonymous allegations, pointing out that a similar story had appeared at the start of last year’s tournament, and adding “I guess that’s annual. I guess next year we’ll get it again.”

Boeheim’s sanguine response may be so much bravado, or it may be based on a firm belief that in the end nothing will come of the rumored investigation. As college sports fans saw recently with the NCAA’s botched investigation of the University of Miami, the Association’s enforcement division is far from perfect. Still a package of sanctions that would likely include a loss of scholarships and a ban on postseason play for one or more years would almost certainly make the hard work of being immediately competitive in a new conference dramatically less appealing.

But at least for the moment the coach is fighting back against the rumors even as his team fights back against opposing squads’ efforts to put the ball in the basket. When Boeheim took over as head coach thirty-six years ago he taught his Syracuse players a 2-3 zone defense. All these years later, even as the college game has turned heavily to man-to-man defensive schemes, he’s still running that 2-3 zone.

When done well, as it usually is by Syracuse, the zone slows down the opposing offense and leads to turnovers. With the obvious caveats about small sample sizes and lack of common opponents, consider the average points yielded by the four Final Four teams so far in the tournament. Overall number one seed Louisville has given up 59 points per game. Wichita State, the number nine seed who will fill the role of Cinderella in Atlanta, has surrendered 62.3; while South bracket champion Michigan has allowed 63.3. All three are good defensive numbers and obviously bunched closely together. Then there is Syracuse. In four games Boeheim’s Orange and their zone have yielded an average of just 45.8 points, a stunning 25% stingier than the average of the other three finalists.

Perhaps an opponent will beat the zone next weekend. Syracuse is not the favorite for the national title. That role clearly belongs to Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad, whose presence with the Orange means that in its final year of existence the old Big East accounts for half of the Final Four. Perhaps in the months ahead the NCAA will come crashing through Boeheim’s off-court defenses. Or perhaps he will just decide that in this period of uncertainty and change, it’s time to go. But for one more week at least, even as the old Big East fades into history, the head coach with the most conference wins is reveling in the moment with both his zone defense on the court and personal defenses off it solidly in place.

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