ST. LOUIS — This Sunday night was not like the one before it. Seven days earlier Michael Gbinije, Syracuse’s 6'7" star guard, had sat alone in the Orange’s locker room in the Carmelo K. Anthony Center, his nerves verging on overload. He and his teammates had gathered around a television there to watch the NCAA tournament selection show, hoping—after a 19–13 season—to hear their name called, even if it was for a First Four game in Dayton. After the first Orange-less regional was revealed some 20 minutes into the show, Gbinije retreated to the TV on the other side of the room, unable to stand the stress. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, a leaked bracket began to circulate on Twitter. His teammates on the locker room’s other side, eyes glued to the leak on their smartphones, began ticking off correct matchup after correct matchup. As the leaked bracket stayed perfect, they began to buzz in hopes that its most relevant bit of info—their being a No. 10 seed in the Midwest—would prove true too. “I could see them celebrating and thought to myself, ‘This is crazy,’” Gbinije said. “How could they be so happy? I was tortured.”
Seven days later in St. Louis’s Scottrade Center, home of the Blues, Gbinije was in a much lighter mood. He was following three-pointers with bow-and-arrow mimes. He was practically skipping off the court during timeouts. He was soaring through the lane for a tomahawk dunk and screaming upon landing, as if he knew, this time before the rest of the world, that there would be more Syracuse basketball to come.
The Orange’s 75–50 win over Middle Tennessee on Sunday night was, in some ways, a predictable result. The Blue Raiders were a No. 15 seed, only one of which (Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City squad in 2013) had ever won a second-round game. Syracuse, meanwhile, is now heading to its 16th Sweet 16 during coach Jim Boeheim’s 39-year tenure. Yet this is perhaps the least likely such trip. Boeheim’s nine-game suspension, handed down a year ago for a slew of his program’s NCAA violations, cast a pall over the season before it even began, then threw it into disarray when the NCAA moved the forced leave up nearly a month. The Orange went 4–5 without Boeheim (including a particularly embarrassing loss to St. John’s, who then lost 16 straight, beginning with fledgling Incarnate Word). They later lost four of their final five regular season games, then their ACC tournament opener to bubble cohabitant Pittsburgh. When Syracuse was finally announced during last week’s drawn-out selection show, in the last grouping to be revealed, it was immediately seized upon by critics as fruit of the committees’ continued bias toward power-conference needle-movers, which left deserving mid-majors in the cold.
In St. Louis, Syracuse responded first by throttling Dayton by 19 points, then smothering Middle Tennessee. In doing so they dispatched the second round’s most surprising guest in a weekend overrun by them, following this tournament’s cruel trend of sending Cinderellas home after their second night at the ball. Forty-eight hours earlier, the Blue Raiders had dunked and three-balled their way into the nation’s heart, bouncing popular title favorite Michigan State, which was led by a March legend (coach Tom Izzo) and the potential national player of the year (Denzel Valentine), with stunning verve and athleticism. Apparently overqualified for their seeding, they nonetheless proved well-cast for March darling status (stocky bomber Giddy Potts, a reluctant but endearing media magnet, will not soon be forgotten), and spoke so earnestly of their continued confidence that one did not dare rule out a repeat performance.
But Sunday’s game did not get off to the same rollicking start as Friday’s when the Blue Raiders had jumped out to a 15–2 lead and never relinquished their advantage. Instead fell behind 22–10 as they appeared flustered by the Orange’s 2-3 zone, passing the ball around the perimeter deep into the shot clock, unable to penetrate or work the ball inside. “They came out on the [three-point] line,” said Potts, “and we couldn’t really get around it.” When they did they fared poorly, making just eight of 11 two-point attempts in the first half; 6'7" forward Reggie Upshaw, who scored 21 against the Spartans, shot 0-for-5 while fending off the Orange’s collapsing back line. “I wasn’t being aggressive enough,” a dejected Upshaw would say later. “I was kind of hoping for foul calls.”
Meanwhile Middle Tennessee’s three-point shooting, which had torched Michigan State at a 57.9% clip, went cold and quiet, run off the line by the Orange’s long and aggressively closing defenders. Shots that did get up rimmed out. Passes bounced off hands. When sophomore guard Quavius Copeland hit a three that would have cut Syracuse’s lead to five with 6:21 left in the first half, officials waved off the bucket as a shot-clock violation after a lengthy replay review. It didn’t to be the Blue Raiders’ day.
Still they clung stubbornly to Syracuse’s heel, entering halftime trailing only by four. The second half opened with what passed for a Blue Raiders run: consecutive threes by Jaqawn Raymond and Potts that gave Middle Tennessee its first lead since the game’s third minute. Gbinije responded with a cutting reverse layup, and soon the teams were trading buckets in a tight game that seemed poised to mold into Friday’s stunner’s worthy heir.
It would not last. Just past the 15-minute mark, Raymond—Middle Tennessee’s point guard—picked up his fourth foul. Over the next eight and a half minutes, played almost entirely with Raymond on the bench, the Blue Raiders scored just two points and fell behind 61–41. (A seven-minute drought ended when a returning Raymond connected on a three.) The Orange began draining jumpers, throwing down alley-oops. They looked the part of an ACC contender, even if they had not been. Middle Tennessee never again came within 20.
“We came out in the second half fighting,” Potts said, “and at the end we gave up.”
The Blue Raiders exited the court stone-faced, Upshaw wrapping his head beneath a towel. Raymond trotted to a section of the team’s family members and supporters for a series of bittersweet high fives. In the locker room, where they had so comfortably held court with the descending throng of reporters a day earlier, the players slumped in their lockers, staring at their phones or into space toward nothing at all; in an idle moment, Upshaw leaned back and pulled the towel entirely over his face. He removed it and sat up to explain to reporters the conflicting emotions of a rollercoaster weekend. “To kind of shock the nation with how we played, you can be proud of it,” said Upshaw, a junior who finished with two points. “But right now I’m just kind of down.”
It was a tableau that differed greatly from that which dominated the team’s sudden ascent from unknown to celebrated. The spotlight had revealed a collection of characters worth more than a losing team’s anonymous send-off: the hard-dunking, high-jumping Upshaw; forward Darnell Harris, a D-III and juco journeyman on a five-year haircut hiatus; coach Kermit Davis Jr., a wunderkind turned Icarus who climbed painstakingly back up the coaching ladder; Perrin Buford, the Animal Planet-loving leader who rallied the team after a late-season slide; Edward Simpson, the sixth man who horrifically shattered his ankle two weeks earlier and wheeled around St. Louis on a scooter. One locker over from Upshaw, Potts, the blunt and fearless marksman who emerged chief among the cast, had an easier time seeing the positive. “It was a hell of a year,” he said. “We did a hell of a job.”
Down the hall, the Syracuse locker room was upbeat but calm. The Orange’s two standout senior guards, Gbinije and Trevor Cooney (who on Sunday scored 23 and 12 points, respectively) have each been to the tournament twice before, though never in significant roles on a team that had seen its second weekend. Ditto Tyler Roberson, the team’s talented but unpredictable junior forward, who had come alive for 27 rebounds during Syracuse’s two wins. For two other key contributors—freshman forward Tyler Lydon, who scored 14 against Middle Tennessee while anchoring the zone, and classmate Malachi Richardson, whose three-pointer kicked off Sunday’s decisive run—the experience was entirely novel.
Even for Mike Hopkins, a player on Syracuse’s 1990 Sweet 16 team and now an assistant coach on 10 more, this trip stood apart from the others. A year ago, when the Orange had self-imposed a postseason ban ahead of impending NCAA sanctions, Hopkins skipped the annual coaching convention during Final Four weekend in favor of a five-day trip to the Cayman Islands with his family. “I just had to get away,” he said Sunday. Since then he served as an emotional fill-in while his boss and mentor served his suspension, then sweated weeks of speculation about whether the team’s pair of swoons would cost it a return to the tournament.
In the locker room after Sunday’s win, he compared the feeling inspired by this year’s team to that of 1996, when the Orange, a No. 4 seed, gelled late and went on a run to the national title game. This year’s late upswing had the added layer of uncertainty about whether it would have a chance to happen at all. “It’s the gratification of, Yes, we made it,” he said. “Someone invited us to the party, and the party’s a dream.”