This story originally appears in the April 4, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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Syracuse can win the national title next Monday. Just don’t ask us how. Heck, we’re still not sure how the Orange got to the Final Four in the first place. This team started 0–4 in the ACC, led the nation in nail-biting on Selection Sunday and trailed Virginia by 15 points with 9:33 to play in their Elite Eight game in Chicago. The way the Cavaliers play defense, that was like trailing a 100-yard dash by 98 yards.
“I gotta watch the tape again, because I don’t know what just happened,” Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said on Sunday. “It was like an episode of The Twilight Zone ... ‘[We’re] up six? What just happened?’”
Eh, nothing interesting ... except that freshman forward Tyler Lydon hit a three-pointer with one shoe on, and freshman guard Malachi Richardson scored 21 points in the second half after his whole team put up 21 in the first, and Syracuse scored 20 points in less than four minutes, and the Orange won 68–62, and we know we’re throwing a lot of numbers at you, but here are some more: Under coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers were 68–0 when leading by at least 10 points at halftime. They are now 68–1.
Even by March Madness standards, this was a stunning turnaround. Virginia players who had dismantled opponents with robotic efficiency looked like they had been infected with a virus. Richardson shot just 9 for 38 over his first seven tournament halves. But since he was a kid in Trenton, N.J., he has impressed his coaches with his poise and confidence. He saw his scoring explosion coming, because he always sees a scoring explosion coming. With just under six minutes left, Richardson screamed to the Syracuse fan section, “They can’t guard me!”
In the locker room afterward, he explained almost meekly, “I couldn’t be guarded at the time. They had the best defense I’ve seen, especially as a team. But I was able to get going.”
Dig a little deeper, and the Syracuse run makes sense, in a kinda-sorta-you-gotta-look-deep-and-through-orange-tinted-glasses way. Yes, the Orange lost 13 times this season, but they played in the nation’s best conference and had a chance to win almost every game. Eight of those 13 losses came to NCAA tournament teams. Another came at Louisville, which only missed the tournament because of its unfortunate escort-hiring situation.
And of course, Syracuse lost five games when Jim Boeheim was serving a nine-game suspension. The program was penalized for a variety of infractions, ones that the coach did not commit but were deemed to have occurred because of his lack of oversight. Boeheim will tell anybody who will listen (and anyone who won’t) that his suspension was undeserved. Most objective observers don’t share his view.
But in roundball matters Boeheim almost always delivers the naked truth. When he was adamant, before Selection Sunday, that his team had earned a bid, he really believed that. And when he said after beating the Cavs, “I wasn’t planning on getting to the Final Four,” he meant that, too. He knows this is not a great team. But he believes what he told his players: Find a way to win the game, and worry about the rest later.
Boeheim rarely gets credit for his tactical acumen, but he is one of the best in-game strategists in the sport’s history. He showed it again on Sunday. At halftime he lit into Richardson for his decision making. He also told his players that once they cut the lead to single digits, they would hit Virginia with a full-court press that had worked so well in the comeback against Gonzaga two days earlier. He did not want to go to the press too early, allowing the Cavs to adjust, or too late, allowing them to survive.
The press was not a magic solution, but it did loosen Virginia’s choke hold. As Hopkins said, “All you’re trying to do is speed them up, get them out of tempo.”
The Cavaliers got rattled. Richardson got smart, and then he got hot. The day before, Hopkins asked Hall of Fame guard Reggie Miller what he would say to the talented but mercurial 6'6" freshman, who never loses confidence but sometimes loses his rhythm. “Shooters shoot it,” Miller said. “And you gotta have a short-term memory.”
Boeheim called it the greatest comeback in his 56 years at Syracuse, because of how many points his team was down and the stakes. If Syracuse goes on to win the national championship, college basketball fans will talk about this game for 56 years. And maybe they should anyway.
In the meantime, Boeheim is heading to his fifth—and most unlikely—Final Four. Syracuse will be an enormous underdog against North Carolina, and for good reason. But the last time these teams played, the Orange had the ball, trailing by three points, with a chance to spoil Senior Night in Chapel Hill. Forward Michael Gbinije missed a layup, Richardson missed a triple, and the Tar Heels escaped, 75–70.
Can Syracuse close out Carolina on a neutral floor? Stranger things have happened. Ask Virginia.