Iona Coach Jim Valvano had the Syracuse Orangemen right where he wanted them last Saturday night. With 8:40 remaining in the first half of the Carrier Classic championship game, Center Jeff Ruland sank a 15-foot jump shot to give Iona a 27-20 lead, and the upstart little school from New Rochelle, N.Y. was sticking it to the classiest team in the East. And the Gaels were doing it in Manley Field House, where the Orangemen are as deadly inside as the frostbite is outside. "That's when I told the players to start putting their pants on," Valvano said later. "I wanted to get out of the gym while we were still ahead."
Not a bad idea, but the Gaels lingered too long. While the fans howled and the ushers blocked the exits, Syracuse charged back into the lead, outscoring Iona 25-8 in the nearly six minutes after Ruland's basket and eventually winning 89-76. The outcome left little doubt as to which team is the best in the East or, for that matter, one of the best in the country.
Even if Iona lost the game, at least it won some respect, particularly from Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, a John Dean lookalike who has a wonderful memory and always tells the truth. Before the tournament Boeheim had predicted Iona would lose its opening-round game to Utah State. Even when the Gaels won 73-61, he was not very impressed. But after watching Iona up close in the finals, he admitted he had been wrong. "I misjudged you," Boeheim told Valvano during the postgame handshake. "You're a lot better than I thought you were." How much better? "I'll be shocked if they don't win at least 21 games."
Twenty-one—or better—is a game Syracuse plays just about every winter. The Orangemen have been to six straight NCAA tournaments, and they seem certain to make it seven this year. Without having broken much of a sweat, they are already 4-0; their home-game winning streak has now reached 33. So far Whittier has fallen by 49, North Carolina A&T by 25 and Western Michigan by 22. The 93-71 waltz past Western on Friday night not only put Syracuse in the Carrier finals but also gave the school its 1,000th victory.
The two main reasons for Syracuse's grand success are Forward Dale Shackleford, the Carrier MVP with 46 points in two games, and Center Roosevelt Bouie, who has finally added some offense—37 points last weekend—to go with his formidable defense. He had 23 rebounds and 13 blocks in the Classic. When Forward Louis Orr stops hobbling—he has a bad right knee—Syracuse will be even better.
While Orange fans wait, they can enjoy the sudden development of Bouie, a 6'11" junior who has started to show some Artis Gilmore moves to complement his Artis Gilmore Afro. Bouie averaged only 10.7 points a game his first two seasons, but now he is up to 17.2. "I have a new attitude," he explains. "It's 'try to stop me.' When I get out on the court, I feel like I'm gonna explode."
Bouie's new aggressiveness and a deeper awareness of his potential developed last summer when he attended a basketball camp, played in the U.S.S.R., and toured Italy with the Syracuse team. "I tried to soak up everything from everybody," he says. "Anything anyone wanted to whisper in my ear, I'd think about before I went to sleep. Instead of looking for newfangled ways, I learned that what I really needed to improve were the basics, like squaring up to the basket before I jump, shooting from a comfortable position on the court and keeping my hands up ready for the ball." Thus instructed, Bouie averaged 22 a game in Italy and scored 30 against the Soviets' 7'4" Vladimir Tkachenko in a tournament there. "When I took my first look at him," Bouie recalls, "I said to myself, 'I'm not telling anybody, but he scares me to death.' "
According to Boeheim, "Bouie isn't near his potential yet, but he has improved 200% since last year. He's not hiding out on offense anymore. He has a lot more confidence in himself, and so do his teammates. They're not shy about passing him the ball." And Boeheim maintains that there is good reason for his center's late development. "In high school the biggest guy he played against was 6'4"—and that was his sister."
Another player showing dramatic offensive improvement is Shackleford, whose 22.8 points per game are nearly nine higher than his average of a year ago, when he mostly played guard. Shackleford is a basketball rarity, a good scorer who is not a good shooter. He gets his points by breaking away, by penetrating, by hanging around for garbage, by doing just about everything except sinking 20-foot jump shots. Those are usually provided by Hal Cohen and Marty Headd, who shuffle in and out of the backcourt with Eddie Moss, Mark Cubit and anybody else Boeheim wants to try.
This kind of talent and depth is rare in Eastern basketball. Rarer still is the Eastern team that can stand up to the top powers from other regions. Syracuse did that last year by beating New Mexico on the road and Michigan State at home. This season the Orangemen are hoping to do it again in the finals of a holiday tournament at Kentucky. If Syracuse is to solidify a spot high in the national rankings, it will need to meet—and beat—the Wildcats. Now that the Orangemen have gotten past Iona, the probable match with Kentucky is the only really tough one on their schedule. Eight of Syracuse's remaining opponents did not even have winning records last year, and half a dozen or more are so weak this season that they might as well mail in losing scores right now.
Even so, Boeheim can rightfully claim, "We've established ourselves as one of the better teams in the country. We're starting to attract the highly recruited kids like Bouie and freshman Rick Harmon, and we've gotten some big wins outside our area, which is something other Eastern teams haven't been able to do."
But it is home in renovated Manley that Syracuse is toughest. The Orangemen have lost only 27 times there since 1963, and just five since 1971. During the current 33-game streak, Michigan State is the only club to come as close as eight points. "No matter what you hear about the fans or the officials here, the only way you can have a record this good is with talent," says Boeheim.
Iona has neither the tradition nor the resources of Syracuse, but it does have a manic coach and two quality players in Ruland, a 6'9" sophomore, and Glenn Vickers, a 6'3" junior guard. Valvano sold both of them on the challenge of building a program from the bottom, although both had plenty of opportunities to start at the top. "We're the Rocky of college basketball," Valvano says. "It won't be long before we're a hell of a team. But we have to realize that when we play a really good team we can determine the outcome of the game ourselves, instead of sitting back and waiting for our opponent to do it."
There were signs this attitude was developing in the win over Utah State, a Top 20 team last year and a good one this season. Iona built a 13-point lead in the second half, let it slip down to one and then built it right back up. During the Gaels' winning surge, Ruland showed why schools such as Kentucky were drooling over him before he signed with Iona. He intercepted a Utah State pass in his defensive half of the floor, dribbled downcourt, flipped a behind-the-back pass to a teammate on the wing and, upon taking a return toss, dunked the basket that gave the Gaels a 64-55 lead. "Knowing we're supposed to win is a new kind of pressure for us," Valvano says. "It's like putting a bow tie on a pig. You can dress him up, but he doesn't know how he should act."
Last Saturday night the finery of success was worn best by Syracuse. Shackleford led all scorers with 30 points; Bouie had 18 and blocked eight shots; and six other Orangemen played 17 minutes or more. Iona's frustration after its shining moment in the first half was epitomized by Ruland. Although he scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, he also committed 10 turnovers and spent most of the second half vainly waving for the ball before finally fouling out. Valvano called the Bouie-Ruland matchup a "standoff," but if it was, it was more a tribute to the vastly improved Bouie than it was an accomplishment for Ruland.
Iona, now 3-1, can only aspire to the success Syracuse has enjoyed for years. The Orangemen are so jaded that they even grouse about the home winning margin. "We're spoiled around here," Boeheim says. "If we're not ahead by 25 or more, we think something is wrong." But, of course, that does not happen very often.