He'll be there at the final Four, the magic land that many thought he would never enter without buying a ticket. Meet Boeheim Agonistes. Each coach will bring something special to New Orleans: Jerry Tarkanian, a towel to suck on; Bob Knight, an ill-fitting red sweater; Rick Pitino, a pocketful of miracles; James Boeheim.... Well, the Syracuse coach will bring tortoiseshell glasses and a thin skin.
He'll also bring a very good team. Syracuse beat North Carolina 79-75 in the East Regional on Saturday at the Meadowlands to end 10 years of frustration for Boeheim, who had long been considered the reason that Syracuse carried an apple as well as its symbolic orange into postseason play. Boeheim has a winning percentage of .758 in 11 seasons at Syracuse, yet he was best known as the coach whose talent-rich teams had never won more than one game in eight NCAA appearances. "I admit I'm sensitive," he says. "I read everything negative written about me, and everything hurts." The stamp of approval he so desperately craved never seemed to be forthcoming.
Until last week. Boeheim beat a Carolina team of which Dean Smith had said, "This is a great team, and we don't use the word 'great' very often." Indeed, the top-seeded Tar Heels seemed to have, as Boeheim had said before the game, "all the answers, both inside and outside." Two of them were All-America senior point guard Kenny Smith, who is both bolt-of-lightning penetrator and three-point threat, and freshman center J.R. Reid, who had made his last 10 field-goal attempts to finish with 31 points in the Tar Heels' 74-68 semifinal victory over Notre Dame.
What North Carolina lacked was blue-collar sensibility. The senior class, led by Smith and forward Joe Wolf, had a four-year record of 115-22 but never won an ACC tournament or made the Final Four. The Tar Heels were fast, strong and smart, but they weren't tough. Dean Smith may have recognized that after a small Irish team outrebounded the Heels 14-6 on the offensive boards and 29-21 overall.
"I know we can't let that happen in the final," he said. But it did. Syracuse's 29-12 halftime edge in rebounding was the primary reason that it led 41-30 (Reid had zero rebounds in the first 20 minutes, while Syracuse's fab frosh, Derrick Coleman, had 10), and the Orangemen finished with a 42-32 edge on the boards. North Carolina ate quiche. Syracuse, now 23-1 in games in which it outrebounded opponents, ate glass.
Still, after Smith, who scored 20 second-half points, made a three-pointer to slash Syracuse's lead to 76-73 with 2:04 left, it looked as though the Orangemen would choke once again. Both point guard Sherman Douglas (at 1:22) and Coleman (at 0:41) missed the front ends of one-and-ones. However, both times Carolina failed to connect at the other end, and the Orangemen grabbed the ensuing rebounds. Finally, Syracuse guard Greg Monroe made two free throws and Douglas hit another, after a Smith layup, to ice the win.
When Dwayne (Pearl) Washington bolted Syracuse for the NBA last year, following his junior season, the Orangemen seemed to lack a quarterback. But they found one in Douglas, who if not for the Pearl's defection would have spent most of this season chatting with Monsignor Charles Borgornoni, the campus priest in the orange sweater, who sits on the end of the Syracuse bench. (When asked after the Carolina game if he planned to go to New Orleans, Father Borgornoni responded, "Is the Pope Catholic?")
Douglas had 10 assists in Syracuse's 87-81 semifinal win over Florida. He then dished out nine against the Heels while scoring 24 points. He throws up more lobs than a clay-court hacker, but on Saturday most of them found their way into the sure hands of junior center Rony Seikaly for dunks. "It must be something he invented," said Kenny Smith. "I can't imagine a coach telling him to lob that much." Correct, Kenny. "The lob is Sherman's play," says Boeheim. "I can't take credit for that."
Nor does Boeheim take credit for the ascendance of Seikaly, suddenly the country's best collegiate pivotman not wearing Navy dress blues. Assistant coach Bernie Fine works with Seikaly daily because, says Boeheim, working with him "drove me crazy." A native of Lebanon who was raised there and later in Greece, Seikaly came to Syracuse with classic good looks, a pleasing personality, loads of money and rudimentary basketball skills.
"I don't even want to say how bad he was," says Boeheim. But...Rony, Rony, Jim went on living and kept on forgiving because...he saw a 6'10" stud with athletic talent. Boeheim's patience paid off as Seikaly did a Bill Walton impression in both regional games. He worked for position, caught the ball confidently, made thoughtful but decisive moves, dunked and bounced feathery shots off the glass. He had a total of 59 points and 20 rebounds in the two games and was named the regional's most outstanding player. He also uttered the most outstanding malapropism. Said Seikaly in the press conference after the victory over Florida, "This is the most tasteful game."
Speaking of taste, it's a good thing the NCAA doesn't rule on questions of neatness, otherwise it would have to decide whether to force the gangly, 6'9" Coleman to tuck in his jersey. The wayward singlet constantly hangs over Coleman's shorts and makes him look like the second coming of Jumpin' Johnny Green. "I know everybody's thinking, There's a typical inner-city kid looking all sloppy," says Coleman, who comes from Detroit. "But I tuck it in, and it just comes out again. Anyway, it makes me play looser when it's out."
Both Florida and North Carolina wish his jersey had stayed in. In the semifinal, Coleman's block of an Andrew Moten drive with 5:10 to go keyed a decisive 11-4 run for the Orangemen. Against the Heels, Coleman made only 2 of 10 field goals, but he pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds and blocked three shots. He may never match the pivot moves of his freshman rival, Reid, but he could blossom into a Russell-like defender.
The Douglas-Seikaly-Coleman trio needs the dual anchors of seniors Howard Triche, an outstanding defender, and Monroe, a three-point specialist. In fact, all will have to play well in New Orleans because Syracuse lacks depth. The Orangemen will also need astute guidance from the bench. "See, most of all, I'd like people to be neutral about my coaching," said Boeheim. "I'd like people to say, 'He's not real good, but he's not bad, either.' "
If the Orangemen win it all, Boeheim will be a lot better than not bad.