Dion Waiters and James Southerland were Syracuse's sparks off the bench. (REUTERS)
NEW YORK -- With 16:49 left in Thursday's Big East tournament quarterfinal against UConn, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim yanked his starting senior point guard, Scoop Jardine, from the lineup, and never put him back in the game. Jardine had just missed a three-pointer that lowered his shooting stats to 1-of-6 on the afternoon, and the underdog Huskies had just taken a lead that would balloon to eight points within a few minutes. After the game, Jardine fielded questions in the locker room while wearing a shirt that said not "Syracuse" on the front, but rather, "Team Jardine."
On a very large percentage of college basketball teams, what happens when the starting senior point guard has a miserable game and is relegated to the bench for 22 of 40 minutes, is that they implode. And in most situations -- even if this involved the Scoop Jardine of two or three years ago -- a player who wears a "Team Me" shirt while conducting interviews is putting a being-selfish anecdote on a tee.
On this No. 2-ranked Syracuse team, though, neither of those things are the case. The Orange so deep that, as UConn coach Jim Calhoun said after losing to them 58-55, "They certainly have a great many answers." Jardine was the wrong one on Thursday, but Dion Waiters, their sophomore sixth man/microwave, was a right answer, scoring 18 points in 24 minutes. Another answer was junior James Southerland, whose 10-second half points helped ignite a comeback and move them on to face Cincinnati in Friday's semifinals.
Scoop's "Team Jardine" shirt. (Luke Winn/SI)
And what of Jardine? He neither said the wrong things, nor looked like he was putting on a happy face only for the media. He was genuinely happy for Waiters, a fellow Philadelphia product who refers to Jardine as a big brother. (They used to call each other cousins, but it was recently revealed that they are not actually cousins -- it was just a term of endearment.) "Whoever's playing hot, coach is going to play," Jardine said. "If I'm 1-for-6 and I'm playing bad, take me out of the game. I'm going to tell you myself: If there are guys playing better, who can help us win, I'm all for it."
Winning breeds contentment, but you don't go 31-1 with a nine-man rotation unless everyone is cool with being in a nine-man rotation that tilts, on a game-to-game basis, in favor of the hot hand. Waiters' on-court stretch with freshman reserve Michael Carter-Williams -- who replaced starting two-guard Brandon Triche -- midway through the first half gave Syracuse its biggest lead of the game, at 23-15, and Waiters said that Jardine was the first one off the bench supporting them. "Seeing that," he said, "makes you proud to be part of the team."
Inevitably, the Orange were asked a number of questions about "distractions," this being the first time they faced the media since a Yahoo! Sports report surfaced about an NCAA investigation into failed drug tests by former Syracuse players over the past 10 years. (While I suspect the team might have been distracted by the Bernie Fine scandal, which resulted in them losing a longtime assistant coach, the notion that they'd be bothered by a vague investigation into former players' drug tests that weren't even mandated by the NCAA is ridiculous.) Boeheim balked at the mere mention of it, saying the school had reported the situation five years ago. "This is a media [thing] -- this is all you people's thing," he said. "If things were bothering us we wouldn't be 31-1. ... I'm much more concerned my wife being mad at me than I am anything else, to tell you the truth."
Boeheim will have to keep deflecting inquiries about the NCAA probe, but still, it's nice to be a coach who has all the answers on the court. Calhoun, on the other hand, was stuck with a starting forward combo of Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi who combined to go 1-of-11 from the field and grab just five rebounds in 30 minutes combined, and a starting point guard, Shabazz Napier, who went 5-of-17 with five turnovers. The Huskies didn't have an impact guard or wing in reserve, and it led to their exit from the Big East tourney. Syracuse had Waiters and Southerland, who put up his first multi-three-pointer game since Jan. 21, plus Carter-Williams, who added four assists without a turnover, and Rakeem Christmas, who had five rebounds and two blocks in eight minutes.
Syracuse is the deepest national title contender, and it's playing with house money at Madison Square Garden. NCAA selection committee chairman Jeff Hathaway essentially revealed on Wednesday that the Orange have locked up the East Regional's No. 1 seed. All that's left for them to do is fine-tune for the NCAAs, where they'll show up and, like they did on Thursday, keep running through weapons until they find the one that kills.