Syracuse readies for tough ACC opener at Pitt

Six games into his first stint as a head coach, Syracuse's Mike Hopkins remains in disbelief mode.

''I'm addicted,'' Hopkins said Tuesday, two-thirds of the way through his tenure as the interim for suspended coach Jim Boeheim. ''It's not the most ideal situation, but it's a great opportunity. It's an honor.''

The Orange (10-3) has gone 4-2 since Hopkins was thrust into his temporary role, one that will become permanent at his alma mater when the 71-year-old Boeheim retires in three years or sooner.

The NCAA hit Syracuse with sanctions in March after a long investigation into the university's athletic department. Boeheim was given a nine-game suspension that originally was to begin with Wednesday night's Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Pittsburgh (10-1). That was changed earlier this month, after Syracuse had lost in overtime at home to Wisconsin.

The decision by the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee was a welcome concession, allowing Boeheim, in his 40th season at Syracuse, to only miss three ACC games.

It also didn't pose much of a problem for his longtime assistant and former Orange star, thanks in large part to Boeheim.

''Coach had been preparing us before it without knowing when, but not knowing it was going to come that night after the Wisconsin game (Dec. 2),'' Hopkins said. ''You're dealing with it, you're moving forward. It's like having your grandmother sick and you know the inevitable is coming, but when it comes it's still a shock. Seeing coach leave was hard.''

Harder still because under the suspension, Boeheim can have no contact with the team - Hopkins and the staff included.

''Imagine, when it's your passion, your life, it's part of who he is,'' Hopkins said. ''I think anytime anything that you love is taken away from you - even for a day - and the people that he loves, that's tough.''

Boeheim has continued to do his weekly radio show and understands the challenges Hopkins has faced.

''He is a tremendous coach, but he's not coaching his team, he's coaching my team,'' Boeheim said on one broadcast. ''They're used to my words and how I coach. It makes it difficult for anyone to take over somebody else's team.''

The Orange lost its first game without Boeheim, at archrival Georgetown. Hopkins lamented not going to a press earlier than he did in that 79-72 setback, and a week later Syracuse was caught off-guard, its signature 2-3 zone defense allowing a dozen 3-pointers in an 84-72 loss to St. John's at Madison Square Garden. The Orange had won nine of the previous 10 meetings with the Red Storm.

Since then, Syracuse has posted three home wins in a row - against Cornell, Montana and Texas Southern.

''I think I've done a good job,'' Hopkins said. ''I've always prided myself as a player and a coach - I've always got stuff to learn, I'm always trying to get better. ... Most importantly I've been sticking to the script of Syracuse basketball.''

Hopkins and the Orange will face a stiff challenge against the Panthers, whose rabid crowd helps make them difficult to beat at Petersen Events Center. Pitt forward Jamel Artis was named ACC player of the week on Monday after scoring 29 points to lead a come-from-behind 79-73 win over visiting Western Carolina.

''They've been one of the most successful teams from the Big East to the ACC,'' Hopkin said. ''It'll be a great test for us.''

Syracuse travels to No. 13 Miami (10-1) on Saturday, then hosts Clemson (7-5) next Tuesday night before Boeheim returns Jan. 9 for a home game against North Carolina (11-2), ranked No. 7 this week after a short stint at the top.

Like Boeheim, everybody seems to be counting the days.

''He's got an underdog chip,'' Hopkins said. ''I know when he comes back there'll be a shot of a lightning bolt. It'll be awesome.''

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AP College Basketball website: www.collegebasketball.ap.org

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