Saturday November 26th, 2011

NEW YORK -- Might as well get it out of the way before discussing Syracuse's 69-63 win over Stanford in the NIT Season Tip-Off final, since it's hard to write a column about the Orange without acknowledging the dark-and-uncertain case of Bernie Fine. On Black Friday in 'Cuse country, in the Town of DeWitt, across the street from the home of head coach Jim Boeheim, multiple police agencies raided the home of Fine, the 65-year-old assistant who has been on administrative leave for eight days during an investigation into accusations that he sexually abused two former team ball boys.

Know that the Fine case is not the Penn State case. College sports' latest child-molestation inquiry consists only of two accusers, not the findings of a Grand Jury; and it is the digging-up of an old allegation from which no arrests were made. Fine says the accusations are "patently false." Thus the prudent course is to reserve judgment until any charges are filed or new evidence comes to light. Boeheim, who has adamantly defended his aide, said earlier this week, "When it's done, then there will be time for comment. ... This is something that has nothing to do with this basketball tournament that we're playing in."

But how could one not be affected by the image -- on the front of, the primary local news outlet -- of Fine lurking behind his glass front door this afternoon, staring at a man in a police vest? Or the "POLICE SECRET SERVICE" jacket on the cop in the driveway, overseeing a search of the Fine household's post-Thanksgiving garbage? Dismiss it as one big overreaction, or worry that it's the start of something devastating for the Syracuse program? The raid began at 1:45 p.m., state troopers were lining the driveway by 2:25; and the Fine photo was taken at 3.

At 5:17 p.m. in Madison Square Garden, with Fine absent from the bench for his second game this season, the Orange lost the opening tip to Stanford. They had more than a week to process the Fine distraction -- and are done talking about it -- and this tournament should have had nothing to do with Fine. But the timing of the raid meant that the story was up, at one time or another, on half the laptops in press row. To focus on basketball, one had to first close the browser window, and push aside the darkness.

It would have been soothing, for Syracuse players, to lose themselves in a sublime performance; unfortunately, things remained weird for the nation's No. 5-ranked team. It could not pull away from a squad picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12, and trailed 25-24 at halftime, its backcourt having combined for 11 turnovers against six assists. Senior point guard Scoop Jardine lamented that "we weren't patient at all," which was true, except for the time the Orange were so patient they let the shot clock expire on an offensive possession directly after a timeout, with 6:19 left in the opening half. Those 35 seconds counted among what Boeheim called "35 minutes of horrendous offense."

The Cardinal, who haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2008, came into the game 5-0 and were hunting a put-themselves-on-the-map upset on the same day that the Big East's other title contender, No. 4 UConn, had inexplicably lost to UCF in the Bahamas. The upset seemed within reach when Stanford went on a 12-4 run midway through the second half to go up 55-47. Cardinal reserve forward John Gage, who'd appeared in just two previous games this season, had yet to make a three, and put his first shot on Friday off the side of the backboard, scored eight second-half points, including a pair of trifectas. It was that kind of afternoon -- until pressure changed the game, flipping a Black Friday shocker into a six-point win for the favorites.

Needing to speed up the tempo to have any hope of a comeback, Boeheim ordered up a smothering, full-court press, and the Cardinal crumbled, intimidated by the length and athleticism of the Orange's defense. Stanford committed six turnovers in the final eight minutes, and three different Syracuse players (Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph) finished with four steals each. Joseph was the prime converter of those turnovers into points; the press, he said, "definitely got me going."

After a ruined Orange fast break in which he failed to look back at Jardine, and had a pass thrown off the back of his head at the 7:51 mark of the second half, Joseph rallied to score 12 of Syracuse's final 24 points. He finished with 18 (and nine rebounds) and won tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. Boeheim said Joseph isn't at a peak level of conditioning yet, due to chronic tendinitis in his knees, but it was promising to see the often-passive forward take over a game. Having Joseph as a go-to scorer is one part of the recipe that could take this team to the Final Four in New Orleans, which was the site of Boeheim's lone national championship in 2003.

The continued emergence of the Orange's strong class of sophomores -- late-blooming Fab Melo, as a defensive force at center; versatile C.J. Fair, as an ultra-valuable glue guy; and sparkplug Dion Waiters, as an explosive offensive force off the bench -- will also be key. Although Boeheim started Friday's game with Jardine and Triche in the backcourt, and Joseph, Melo and freshman Rakeem Christmas in the frontcourt, it was telling that the coach stuck with a different configuration for the entirety of crunch time: Triche and Waiters as guards, and Fair, Joseph and Melo as bigs. It was the same lineup Syracuse used in big moments against Virginia Tech in Wednesday's semifinal ("We just went back to what was working," Joseph said) and looks like a lineup that can make a run at a title, barring any injuries -- or outside events -- that could alter the Orange's season.

During the postgame press conference, Joseph sat to Boeheim's left, and the tourney's M.O.P. had his legs splayed out to his side, because he had ice packs wrapped around each of his sore knees. When Joseph gingerly rose out of his chair to leave, he stumbled for a moment, and it looked as if he might fall off the back of the podium. He caught his balance just before a media handler could ask, "Are you all right?"

Boeheim, smiling, leaned into the mic and said, "Another turnover."

Laughter ensued. It was nice, for everyone, to be able to make light of an awkward situation.

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