The Big Apple NIT became a school-house last week. We learned that mighty Syracuse, which won the tournament at New York's Madison Square Garden, not only will lead the nation in look-away passes but also will force its coach to look away while it shoots free throws. We learned that runner-up Missouri might be even tougher without its alltime leading scorer, Derrick Chievous, who has moved on to the NBA. We learned that a poor recruiting season or two can handcuff even North Carolina and Indiana. And we learned that if four of the land's best programs square off over two nights, eventually they will generate a drama worthy of the Great White Way.
That came in the final on Friday night, when 13,627 fans saw the Orangemen, ranked eighth by SI in the preseason, squeeze past No. 13 Mizzou 86-84 in overtime behind swing-man Stephen Thompson (23 points, nine rebounds), center Derrick Coleman (18 points, 15 rebounds) and playmaking wizard Sherman Douglas (21 points, six assists and the tournament MVP award). The Tigers, trailing by as many as 11 points in the second half, got a boost from their bench to send the game into OT at 76-all. But they buckled when Syracuse bypassed Missouri's press with a relay of Billy Owens to Douglas to Thompson, who converted a three-point play for a four-point lead with 14 seconds to go.
During its two games, Syracuse performed enough back doors, slam dunks and alley-oops to fill a five-minute highlight film. "I've been reading where people think we're the Lakers," said Orange coach Jim Boeheim. "I tell you, we have a long way to go."
So does the season, and the NIT raised some questions to ponder as the year wears on. Will the Orange develop a center to relieve Coleman and a free-throw percentage to match their field-goal percentage? Can Missouri—which has earned a spot in the NCAA tournament or the postseason NIT during five of the last six years, yet has failed to advance beyond the first round in either one—build toward the postseason for a change? When will Bob Knight's Hoosiers finally hold a team to double digits?
Last year Seton Hall played itself into the preseason NIT finals and on to its first NCAA berth. This season Missouri may get the most distance out of the NIT springboard. By beating sixth-ranked North Carolina 91-81 in the semifinals, Missouri put everyone on notice.
All five Tiger starters scored in double figures. "With Derrick gone, that's a big chunk of our offense," said guard Byron Irvin, who had a team-high 21 points. "We know we're just going to have to work harder."
The Tar Heels made their work a little easier. Forward Kevin Madden missed most of the game after taking an elbow to the nose, and he plopped down on the bench near J.R. Reid, who won't play for at least a month because of a stress fracture in his left foot. With those two sidelined, guard Jeff Lebo pressured himself into 2-for-15 shooting, while the Heels missed 18 of 23 shots from three-point range.
Missouri's stubborn man-to-man defense had a lot to do with Carolina's poor marksmanship, and Doug Smith, a 6'10" sophomore, helped defuse the Tar Heels' full-court press. Smith is a menacing-looking player, but he handled the ball with grace, finishing with 16 points, 12 boards, four assists and a lot of respect east of the Mississippi.
In the other semi, Syracuse overwhelmed Indiana by a score of 102-78 to gain a bit of revenge for its 74-73 loss to the Hoosiers in the '87 NCAA title game. Celebrated freshman Owens set the tone for the Orangemen's dazzling attack when he made a no-look shovel pass to Coleman for a dunk and the Orange's first points. After that, Douglas took over. He finished with;. 14 assists, but none was more amazing than one in the first half: Picking up a loose ball near midcourt, he hiked a 40-foot bullet through his legs to Thompson, who was streaking for a stuff.
Against this legerdemain and an unusually aggressive Orange man-to-man, the callow Hoosiers were helpless. Their defensive lapses permitted the Orange to score the most points a Knight team has allowed in his 517 games at Indiana. Then in Friday's consolation game, North Carolina, behind Lebo's career-high 29 points, broke that record with a 106-92 drubbing.
During the first half of the championship game, Syracuse relied on the inside game of the 6'9" Coleman, a junior who has moved from power forward to replace Rony Seikaly in the pivot. Although Coleman was able to outplay Mizzou's 7'1" big man, Gary Leonard, Boeheim hopes that 6'10" freshman Rich Manning will develop quickly and allow Coleman to return to forward.
In the second half Thompson and Douglas asserted themselves, and in the overtime they took over. Douglas, a senior, is the best point guard in the country. Thompson not only held Irvin and Indiana's Jay Edwards to single figures, but he also weaved inside to make 21 of 28 shots in the two games.
Syracuse seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Then late in the half, Mizzou's Smith came to life, forward Greg Church found the seams in the Orange's 2-3 zone, freshman Anthony Peeler slowed Douglas's forays, and Syracuse began its suicide march to the foul line. Free throw shooting has become a confounding hallmark for the Orangemen, who entered the game shooting better from the floor (61.6%) than from the line (55.7%). But with Thompson, a career 57% foul shooter, in the game, the Tigers made the mistake of sending Matt Roe (81%) to the line with 35 seconds to go in OT and trailing 81-80. Boeheim couldn't watch as Roe converted both ends of a one-and-one to set up Thompson's clinching play.
The hoopla of the NIT was a worthy backdrop for Owens's coming-out-at-the-Garden party. At 6'9", he provided low-post scoring (15 and 11 points in the two games) and high-post passing (eight assists), and he blended in with the veterans so easily that he missed three of six free throws. Owens had a kind word for everyone, including Peeler, whom he played with on a McDonald's high school All-America team. "He's fitting in very well," said Owens. "What are they, Big Ten or something?"
No, Billy, Missouri's in the Big Eight. But that's O.K. You're just starting to learn. That's what the Big Apple NIT is all about.