With Final Four trip, Syracuse shows unexpected turnaround
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Precisely three weeks ago, in dressing room F-E50 in the bowels of the Verizon Center, Syracuse's season hit a definitive low point. The Orange had scored just 39 points in a blowout loss to arch-rival Georgetown, its worst offensive showing in Big East history.
Syracuse muddled through its fourth loss in five games, and a regular season that featured a No. 3 ranking and Final Four promise had sputtered to an end. Orange guard Trevor Cooney called it "as quiet and confused a locker room has been in Syracuse history."
Former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. mimicked a throat slash on the Verizon Center video board in the game's waning minutes. John Thompson III declared that Georgetown had won the first and last games of the rivalry. The elder Thompson interrupted his son's press conference by saying, "And kiss Syracuse goodbye."
Few could blame anyone for writing off the Orange, who played historically bad and looked utterly hopeless. But late Saturday afternoon, after bullying Marquette in a 55-39 victory, Syracuse cut down the nets on Georgetown's home court for the program's fifth trip to the Final Four.
"It's so much different, like going from an ultimate low to an ultimate high," Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams said. "We were embarrassed. We embarrassed ourselves. On national TV, we got pushed around and blown out. We took that personally, and we turned things around."
The only disappointment, players said, came when Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor came in and told the team that President Barack Obama's security detail wouldn't let him come congratulate them.
"Can't I go see the 'Cuse?" Obama asked. Cantor told the team: "The President of United States watched every bit of it. He said you were fabulous."
From stunned silence to a Presidential seal of approval, it's hard to envision more drastically different scenes in locker room F-E50. Players wore celebratory shirts and pieces of nets tucked into their Final Four hats. A manager danced at Jim Larranaga levels of joyful awkwardness. The sweaty slaps of celebratory hugs provided the soundtrack.
How did things change? Perhaps the most significant adjustment was that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim made no significant adjustments. "I don't change," he said. "I haven't changed in a long time."
After Saturday's game, he looked about as energized as an Apple store customer on Christmas Eve. Boeheim bemoaned the two total points scored at the center position, chiding Baye Moussa Keita and Rakeem Christmas by saying, "A dead man could score eight points playing center for us."
Boeheim had a 7 a.m. flight from Syracuse to Orlando on Monday morning, as he planned to go to Universal Studios and Disney with his family. Instead, the Boeheims are headed to Atlanta, where No. 4 Syracuse will play the winner of No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Michigan.
Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins said that Boeheim stressed ball movement in the practices before the Big East Tournament, and they've made subtle in-game zone adjustments. But mostly, he kept telling his team, "We're good."
"We made a few changes," Boeheim said. "We don't make big changes."
And Boeheim was smart enough to realize that this Syracuse team, ranked as high as No. 3 in January, hadn't changed from a talented and defensively stout group. It lost its offensive confidence amid the suspension of forward James Southerland. His return has boosted Syracuse's outside threat and prevented teams from sagging off guards to clog the passing lanes.
"I think they started to play a little bit tired," Marquette assistant Jerry Wainwright said. "They were nicked up a little bit, and for whatever reason they rejuvenated."
The biggest part of Syracuse's rejuvenation showed up in the NCAA tournament, as its 2-3 zone defense became tougher to solve than a Rubix's Cube coated in Super Glue. Marquette wisely attempted just six three-point attempts against Miami, as they finished the season ranked No. 313 in three-point percentage. But the Golden Eagles fell down by 12 in the first half and kept on firing and misfiring, finishing 3-for-24 from three-point range and shooting 22.6 percent from the field for the game. In the tournament, Syracuse's four opponents have combined to go 14-for-91 from three-point range.
"I think it's one of our best," Boeheim said of his team's zone, comparing it with others in team history.
Things turned for Syracuse after it hit its low point at Georgetown. The antics of Thompson Jr. offered motivation, as Boeheim said of his throat slash: "We don't do that. I don't do that."
The bitterness lingered in the locker room after that game.
"It's great to win here on their floor and go to the Final Four after they beat us, the things they said and their coaches said, it's just great," he said. "I think that they spoke too soon, and we're here having a good time."
The good times began to roll in the first half against Seton Hall in Syracuse's first Big East Tournament game. Seton Hall led by 10 more than five minutes into the game, and the Orange looked like they were stuck in quicksand. But James Southerland began hitting shots, and the Orange routed the Pirates, beat Pitt and then waged a tense overtime victory over Georgetown in the Big East semis.
The change came more mentally and less strategically, as Syracuse began playing hard, moving better on offense and being more active on defense.
"I think we're more intense and take things more personal," Carter-Williams said. "We've come together a lot more. The talent has always been there. Our mentality has changed so much."
The best example of that came midway through the second half, when Marquette's Vander Blue tracked down a long rebound and C.J. Fair ripped it out of his hands. That led to a transition lay-up and free throw for Southerland, boosting a seven-point lead to 10 and essentially putting the lead out of reach for offensively impotent Marquette. "I definitely thought the momentum changed," Southerland said, "and that's when we secured our lead."
In a three-week stretch, Syracuse's season transformed from nadir to apex. But Boeheim wasn't too excited. He stood with his arms folded, chided his brick-laying centers and stayed the measured and steady presence that helped guide Syracuse to this point.
He told the players they'd be "twice as unhappy" if they lost next weekend.
"That's the reality," Boeheim said. "I didn't know that when I was younger. I was so happy to get to the Final Four. The first time I went, we had a chance to win, and it took me 16 years to get over it. If you lose in that game, you don't get over it."
Three weeks ago, no one could have imagined Syracuse saving its season. Now, it's not hard to envision the Orange cutting down the nets Monday night.