Boeheim's Brilliance: How the sage Syracuse coach guided the Orange on their unlikely Final Four run
Coaching basketball in college means that you blow a whistle and draw up plays in Never-Never Land. You keep aging and your Peter Pans stay the same, the generation gap so yawningly large and inexorably growing that the phrase is virtually meaningless. Consider: Syracuse's Jim Boeheim has neither a laptop nor an email address and thinks that Snapchat is a breakfast cereal.
That grandpa-in-charge thing is even more pronounced when the coach has been doing it in the same place for so long, which is the case for the two men in the nightcap of Saturday's Final Four semifinals. Boeheim matriculated at Syracuse as a freshman in 1962 and never left, becoming the head man in '76. North Carolina's Roy Williams, 65, has been a nationally recognized figure on Tobacco Road since 1978, when he became a Dean Smith assistant. Williams got his first head job at Kansas in '88 and returned to Chapel Hill in 2003.
Against those dog-eared, written-with-a-quill résumés, Oklahoma's Lon Kruger, coaching his sixth team, seems like a callow lad, though he is only three years younger than Williams. Kruger's opponent in the other semifinal is Jay Wright, 54, clearly cast as the Clooney clone in the opener of Saturday's twin bill. Which does not mean, by the way, that Wright can't coach. (He's Clooney dazzling in Michael Clayton, not coasting in Ocean's Twelve.)
It is Boeheim, though, who over the past two weekends has stepped onto center stage. Syracuse's four tournament wins, capping its unlikely rise from No. 10 seed to the Final Four, brought with it a trail of encomiums that proclaim: BOEHEIM'S BEST COACHING JOB EVER!
It's hard to measure such things, of course, but, given the Syracuse season narrative, it's certainly not an absurd proposition. The 'Cuse was a team with a limited bench, no natural point guard and no established center. It was also one with a fragile psyche—its presumptive and logical leader, senior forward Michael Gbinije, is not a natural in the role—and had to play without Boeheim on the bench for nine games, the length of an NCAA-mandated suspension. The contrast in style and temperament between him and his replacement, heir apparent and current assistant Mike Hopkins, is stark, and such a contrast would've been difficult for even a seasoned team to handle.
And while the Orange improved after Boeheim came back on Jan. 9—which is what the selection committee undoubtedly considered when it gave them a berth despite a 19–13-record—it still lost five of its last six games.
Put it this way: On Selection Sunday, Syracuse looked like a team capable of perhaps winning a first-round game ... in the NIT.
But back the Orange came, and here they are in their second Final Four in four years, with a chance to win their first championship since the Carmelo Anthony-Gerry McNamara team of 2002–03.
So is this Boeheim's best coaching job ever? Ask the man and you'll get the contrarian view, which is what you usually get from him. (Had the question been posited as: "Jim, you really seemed to be coasting on the sidelines in this tournament," one might've gotten Boeheim to tell what he's done.)
"I believe this more than ever: Our players deserve the credit for us getting here," Boeheim said by telephone on Monday afternoon. "For example, there's been a lot of talk about how I put on the fullcourt press that helped us win against Gonzaga and Virginia. Big deal. Any coach in the position we were in would've done the same thing. There wasn't a choice. This has been a player achievement." On the record, off the record, it didn't matter—Boeheim would not reveal anything in particular he has done to coax these giant wins out of a team that was supposed to lose its opening round game to Dayton.
A closer look, though, reveals a different story about Boeheim.
1. Let's begin with what would seem to be the most difficult thing for a coach of Boeheim's, er, vintage—communication. Boeheim is dealing with players 50 years his junior and sometimes he deals with them quite harshly in public. After a 66–52 loss to Pitt on Feb. 20, for example, he singled out junior forward Tyler Roberson in what seemed like a particularly cruel fashion. "If I had anyone else, he wouldn't play a minute," Boeheim said, a comment that drew general criticism and some pointed commentary from Syracuse product Etan Thomas.
Gbinije has also been on the receiving end of some sharp Boeheim barbs. Two seasons ago he openly derided the Duke transfer for retrieving a shoe from the court rather than playing on during Syracuse's 2014 tournament loss to Dayton (against which it exacted revenge in this year's opening round).
Yet for the most part Boeheim seems to know which players to go at and which to leave alone.
"You don't always know how far to push a player," Boeheim says. "But my default position is that you have to push. You have to get a player to perform. Many times players think they're playing hard and they're not. It's up to you to show them what playing hard means.
"On the other hand, I never go hard at a shooter. You never say anything to a shooter because they're going to do what they're going to do whether you're in their ear or not. Shooting is not about effort."
That would explain his reticence to criticize senior guard Trevor Cooney, who has been up-and-down but who has been solid in the tournament (averaging 12 points a game). And his criticism of Gbinije has modulated as time has gone on.
"We've talked to Mike mostly about how he has to be The Guy," says Boeheim. "Mike is talented but has the type of personality where he wants to be the secondary, maybe even the ... what is it? ... the tertiary guy. We have to get him out of that."
It's not always perfect. Gbinije and Boeheim exchanged angry words during at least one game this year. And even in the tournament Roberson wrenched himself away from Boeheim during a timeout in the Gonzaga game when the coach grabbed his arm.
"Don't touch me!" he said to Boeheim.
"Hey, I'm not hurting you," said Boeheim, who went on talking.
And no player has been a bigger surprise than the non-shooting but energetic Roberson, who has grabbed 47 rebounds in the four games.
There are reasons that Boeheim doesn't get tuned out very often. First, he's not the classic in-your-face coach. If you went to a Syracuse practice you'd be hard-pressed to figure out who's in charge. Surely it's one of his three hyperactive assistants—Hopkins, McNamara or Adrian Autry—and not the older gentleman sitting in apparent disinterest on the sidelines. Boeheim is not a nitpicking hall monitor. He picks his spots, and, yes, sometimes they are quite public.
Then, too, for a player, what you saw when you got recruited is what you get. Boeheim doesn't sweet-talk on home visits, then change into Mr. Hyde once you get to campus. He's almost always Mr. Hyde.
"I make little compromises in the way I act every year," says Boeheim, "but not all that many. The understanding here is that players have to adjust to me, not vice versa. With almost every player I've had, that message is clear."
2. The 12:01 a.m. meeting. Boeheim was eligible to return from his suspension on Jan. 6, and, abruptly, he decided to hold a team meeting one minute after midnight on that date. The message was clear: Daddy's home, and not in the warm sense that Shep and the Limelites sang about. (You'll have to Google it.) It doesn't matter what was said, which has never become public; it was the fact that the meeting was held at all. And long after the players left, he and the assistants were still talking until close to dawn. It marked the starting point, in effect, of a new season.
3. The fullcourt press. Syracuse has used it before—the '03 championship team was good at it—but Boeheim has put it on at just the right time in the NCAAs. No matter what Boeheim says, knowing when to put on the press and when to take it off is a feel thing, and so far he's had the feel.
His teams typically work on fullcourt pressure most intensely in the preseason when they are less tired, then reference it only sparingly as the season goes on. If it seems counterintuitive that a halfcourt zone team would press so well, it's because they trap so well. Trapping is in their 2-3 DNA, whichever of the press's three versions (the 2-4, the 5-4 or the 3-Red, the nomenclature referring to positions, 2 being the shooting guard, 5 the center, etc.) Syracuse is using. If the opposition inbounds anywhere near the corner, that's red meat to the 'Cuse press because it's red meat in the normal zone.
4. Tweaks to the halfcourt zone. At times during the season Syracuse's 2-3 looked something like a 1-1, being particularly susceptible to a high-low combo. The ball was entered to the foul line, the center or forward caught it, turned and found someone open underneath. The first thing Hopkins will probably do when he (presumably) takes over after the 2018–19 season is install a man-to-man even if the zone continues as the primary defense. And Boeheim will be the first one to say that's exactly what he should do.
But in a tournament setting, when nerves are on edge and perimeter shots start to clang, the old reliable 2-3 can be most effective, particularly when 'Cuse makes subtle alterations. "We sometimes change it half to half, sometimes every 10 minutes, sometimes on the fly," says Boeheim.
Syracuse has various levels of "alerts" directed toward certain players. Against Virginia, the Orange came out determined that Virginia senior guard and ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon was not going to control the game. Syracuse limited him but got killed by his backcourt mate, junior London Perrantes. So Perrantes became the focus of the defense in the second half, and he went from five first-half three-pointers to just one in the second.
When Boeheim has a particular alert on a shooter, he's liable to say something like this: "If Perrantes shoots even one shot over you, you're coming out of the game."
In one respect, that isn't much more than Coaching 101; you go out with the idea to shut down certain things and emphasize the hell out of them. But the mistake is to think of Cuse's 2-3 as a stagnant organism, its slides and rotations decipherable on film. It isn't. The 2-3 changes, and right now it's at peak efficiency.
5. The short rotation. Boeheim has been accused, sometimes rightly, of wearing out his players. But come tournament time most every team shrinks its rotation—you see it in the NBA postseason, too—and Syracuse is accustomed to playing with seven. The rotational rhythm has been established. Part of the reason that Boeheim went strictly to a zone defense was to have one less major decision to make during the game—none of that Do I play man or go back to zone?—and the same is true of the rotation. "A coach has so many ways to screw up a game," says Boeheim, "so why not eliminate some of them?" Boeheim's biggest decision now is when to bring in freshman Tyler Lydon for DaJuan Coleman. "If we need Tyler early, we go to him," says Boeheim. "If I can wait, I wait."
Lydon has become, by the way, a most fascinating sixth man because you never know what you're going to get from him, be it rebounds (he had seven in the second round against Middle Tennessee), blocked shots (he had six in the Sweet 16 against Gonzaga) or shoeless three-pointers (he had one against Virginia and two others with both sneakers on).
6. Willingness to open up the offense. In the first half of Sunday's regional final, Virginia jumped most of Syracuse's ball screens, thereby negating their attempts to set a pick-and-roll. So in the second half Boeheim instructed his offense to set screens off the ball or simply clear out and let drivers play one-on-one. That's why freshman guard Malachi Richardson had 21 second-half points and was the regional MVP.
Over the course of Gbinije's career, Boeheim has urged him to take it forcefully to the basket even if it sometimes results in bad shots. (And it has.) But Boeheim believed that he needed a force going to the hoop. (And, man, does he have one now in Richardson.) Similarly, Boeheim never wanted Cooney to live at the three-point line, which is where he spent most of his career, and lately the senior has become an adept driver.
Look, Boeheim isn't the only college coach who gives his players freedom. He's not even the only long-in-the-tooth coach who does it; veterans like Williams and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski give their players freedom, too. But there are lots of men on college benches who get uncomfortable with a pro-type offense, and Boeheim has never been one of them.
The coach concedes that Syracuse got a break when No. 2 seed Michigan State was upset by Middle Tennessee; the physical Spartans would've been a formidable challenge. But who knows? Maybe Syracuse would've met it. Boeheim has utter confidence in his coaching ability, and his team is quite obviously feeding off of it.
"I've been saying for a few years now that I'm a better coach now than I was 20, 30, 40 years ago," says Boeheim. But he couldn't resist a final bit of sarcasm. "Of course, maybe I wasn't very good then, which is what a lot of people told me, so that's not saying much."
Whatever anyone said about him then, he's at the top of his game now.
Boeheim's autobiography, Bleeding Orange, which was written with Jack McCallum, is available here.