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College Basketball

Five thoughts on Jim Boeheim and his amazing run to 900 wins

Photo: Michael Johnson/ZumaPress.com

Jim Boeheim rarely appears to be having fun during a game but players love playing for him.

Jim Boeheim earned the 900th win of his coaching career Monday night with a win over Detroit, and I would love to come up with 900 observations about that. But I won't, because:

A. I don't have 900 observations.

B. Boeheim would absolutely loathe anybody writing 900 things about him, and I don't want to be rude.

C. It would be a more fitting tribute to Boeheim to cut those 900 observations down to five and get the hell out of here.

So here we go.

1. Boeheim's 900 wins may be the most amazing coaching job in college basketball. To be clear here: I don't mean the best coaching job. I mean the most amazing.

First, let's put 900 wins into context.

Career wins coming into this season:

Jim Boeheim: 890.

John Calipari and Tom Izzo combined: 917.

(And yes, I included all of Calipari's vacated wins.)

Boeheim has passed Dean Smith and will soon pass Bob Knight. He will probably not pass Mike Krzyzewski, who is basically a season's worth of wins ahead of Boeheim and is three years younger. But Boeheim has more wins than his old Big East rival, Jim Calhoun.

Now, look at that list. Obviously they are all great coaches, but consider how they won. Knight was the archetype of the demanding coach. Smith was famously meticulous; he may have been the best detail man in the history of basketball. If a player had a hangnail, Smith knew. Krzyzewski has clenched the Duke program in his fist for three decades and never loosened his grip. Calhoun obsessed over every recruit, every slight, every newspaper column, every failure and every PERCEIVED failure.

Boeheim? He doesn't even like to coach practice. He leaves a lot of that to his assistants. He spends more time watching random basketball games on his couch than watching recruiting tape, and I don't even think it's close. Yet here he is, in the company of Dean Smith, Coach K and Knight. It seems like an accident or a fluke. It is neither.

2. You would enjoy playing for him.

This, I think, is the most underappreciated part of Boeheim's success. People see his news conference grumpathons, his whining to the officials and his disheveled appearance, and they think he is no fun at all.

Yet players love playing for Boeheim. That is because he does not micromanage their lives or make them run wind sprints until they are vomiting out of their ears. His program feels a lot more like a successful NBA franchise than you might think. he doesn't worry too much about what his players do with their free time, how they dress or what they say to the media. He expects them to produce on the basketball court and be good teammates. The rest is not really his problem.

The next time he talks about his players being role models for anybody will be the first time. The Syracuse Post-Standard recently reported that his star point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, admitted shoplifting from a store and paid a $500 fine. Boeheim's response: "Syracuse police have found nothing to investigate.The mall, the store, is happy and satisfied with the result. Michael is satisfied with the result." In other words: So what? If players get in trouble, he says: Hey, players get in trouble. When is the next game?

Hey, I didn't say he was the best leader of men. I said you would enjoy playing for him. This approach is his personal preference, but it is also calculated. Boeheim figures that if he has more talent than the other coach, he'll win. A lot of talent has found its way to upstate New York in the last 30-some years. There is a reason for that.

3. The Syracuse program is about his way. But it's not about him.

This is a key difference. Boeheim does not promote himself like other college coaches do. This is another thing he has in common with NBA coaches -- he never forgets that players win games. But he is adamant about his way.

Two years ago, he publicly dared one of his players to leave the program. The guy happened to be his most talented player, Dion Waiters. Boeheim didn't care. He gives his players rope, but he won't let them hang him with it. Waiters stayed and turned into the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft. And I think one reason Waiters stayed was that if he complained about Boeheim, none of his Syracuse teammates was going to agree with him. They know how good they have it at Syracuse.

4. A word about that zone.

When people grudgingly praise Boeheim's coaching ability -- and it is almost always grudging -- they talk about his 2-3 zone. Like, "Well, I'm not really sure how he does it, but I guess it's that zone." The zone is simple. Also, it is brilliant. Syracuse almost always has an advantage in length, and that advantage makes the zone seem more extended than it really is. It allows his players to conserve energy on defense and remain explosive on offense. And while Boeheim would probably not admit this, it means that he doesn't have to go over a ton of opponent film with his team between games. The defense just doesn't change that much based on what the opponent does.

5. He is a brilliant basketball mind.

Think of what a college basketball coach must do. He has to identify talent and recruit it, and Boeheim does this marvelously well. He has to teach his players, and ... well, this is not Boeheim's greatest strength.

But he more than makes up for it when the games start. He is a basketball junkie, and he understands the strategies and rhythms of the game as well as anybody. Put it this way: Krzyzewski could have had a lot of famous coaches on his Olympic staff. He asked Boeheim. Twice.

The Olympics, like college basketball, are supposed to be about certain ideals and a collective innocence we all want to believe in -- and sometimes they are.

But for the U.S. men's basketball team, the Olympics are about showing the world who has the most talent, and winning all the games. They are perfect for Boeheim. He is perfect for Syracuse. And those 900 wins? He earned every one of them.

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