The defending national champions had no idea what would hit them, or who. But that wasn't Connecticut's fault. Syracuse didn't know, either. That's because the Orange dominate by committee. This is a team that plays rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to be the hero.
This is an article from the Feb. 20, 2012 issue
With 6:26 to go last Saturday and Syracuse leading 63--61, would leading scorer Kris Joseph, a thick 6'7" jump shooter who already had 14 points, be the one to go on a tear? Or would it be junior Brandon Triche, the Orange's best three-point shooter? Or sophomore forward C.J. Fair, who nearly scraped his head against the Carrier Dome roof reeling in an alley-oop? Or sophomore center Fab Melo, the team's top NBA prospect, who had laughed as he hit one of three long-range jumpers? "It is fun," Melo would say later. "They give you space and think you're not going to make it—and you make it!"
No, no, no and no. On this day the stars would be senior point guard Scoop Jardine and sophomore sixth man Dion Waiters, who combined to score the next 18 points to turn the game into an eventual 85--67 blowout. Syracuse may be the country's second-ranked squad—at week's end the 25--1 Orange were listed only behind Kentucky—but at times it feels like the perfect team, an assortment of puzzle pieces that shouldn't fit so well together but somehow do.
Entering this season, Syracuse had every reason to fall apart. Nobody expected that Melo, who was 25 pounds overweight last year (and, despite being 7-feet, in over his head), would be a lock for the Big East's most improved player award. Waiters almost transferred at coach Jim Boeheim's suggestion. And most disturbing, the allegations of child molestation against 36-year assistant coach Bernie Fine, which led to his firing on Nov. 27, seemed as if they might bring the whole program down. (Fine has denied all allegations, and no charges have been filed against him.)
There is a heck of a story here if you dig deep enough. But the key to Syracuse basketball is not to look too deep. Just do what the coach does: Watch the games, one after another. The heartwarming stories and controversies and disputes and accolades all fade when the ball goes up, so why worry about them? As Boeheim says, when asked about the firestorm surrounding Fine, "I don't think it helped or hurt us. I just think we had a good team."
JIM BOEHEIM looks at himself as a basketball coach, not as a leader who happens to coach basketball.
This makes him an anomaly among his peers. The man Boeheim passed for third on the alltime wins list (he got his 880th victory against Georgetown on Feb. 8), Dean Smith, wrote a book called The Carolina Way: Leadership Lessons from a Life in Coaching, which easily could be confused with Mike Krzyzewski's Leading with the Heart: Coach K's Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life or Jim Calhoun's A Passion to Lead: Seven Leadership Secrets for Success in Business, Sports and Life. Boeheim would rather send six players onto the court than write one of those books. He figures your life is your business, and why would you model your business on his life? He doesn't even like telling his players how to live. What could he write a book about? His famed 2--3 zone? Passing out of the high post?
"The truth is: I like the players, but I like the game," Boeheim says. "I like to see our players mature and get better. I want them all to graduate. Scoop graduated. But I mean, I like the game. That's why I'm in it."
It's a shame, really, because several Orange players could provide a chapter for the book Boeheim won't write. Look at Joseph. He was averaging 14.3 points at week's end, he's a senior with NBA potential, but when he went scoreless in a win over Seton Hall on Dec. 28, he smiled because his team got the victory.
"He [acted] like he had 30 points, I swear," Jardine said.
Look at Melo, or what's left of him. He slimmed down to 245 pounds last summer and went from overwhelmed freshman to overwhelming sophomore. He ranked second in the nation in block percentage through Sunday (he blocks 15.23% of opponents' two-pointers when he's on the court), takes charges and only cares about two stats: how much he plays, and how much he wins. Jardine and Melo played in the World University Games in China last summer, Jardine for the U.S., Melo for Brazil. Jardine saw a thinner Melo—another reason he lost weight: "The food was horrible," he says—and a hint of the season to come. "I was texting back home, 'Yo, Fab got better!'" Jardine says.
Then look at Waiters, a superquick 6'4" slasher with the upper body of a heavyweight champion. Boeheim says the guard "can get a shot anytime he wants. Here, the NBA—he can get a shot." The problem is that Waiters knows it. He admits that as a freshman, "I let my attitude get in the way of everything." He coasted on defense and mouthed off when Boeheim pulled him from games.
Last spring Waiters considered leaving. Faced with the potential loss of a game-changing talent, Boeheim told Waiters he had two choices: Transfer or shut up and come off the bench.
Waiters stayed, partly because he wanted to play one more year with Jardine, who is not his cousin, no matter what news stories and the Syracuse media guide say. They have just been tight since they were kids in Philadelphia, and they like when people call them cousins. Jardine knew why Waiters was frustrated. Early in his Syracuse career, Jardine had felt the same way. He says he never thought Waiters would leave because "he knew where he wanted to be. We made a pact."
Now Waiters is scoring, creating and, most impressively, keeping his mouth closed. Against Florida, he shot 1 for 8 and only played 14 minutes, while Triche played 35 minutes and scored 20 points. The old Waiters would have stewed. This time he thanked Triche for carrying the team, complained to nobody and went to the gym that night to rescue his shot.
Melo's new body and Waiters's new attitude are the biggest differences between last year's 27--8 Orange and this year's. "In the past we were all on different islands, we had different agendas," Joseph said. "It's not about the individual accolades at this point."
That sounds like a lesson that could help you in business and in life. But Boeheim won't sell that story, most of all because even he doesn't buy it. When he played at Syracuse, he says, "I wanted the guy ahead of me to do bad so I could get in the game." Why would his players be any different?
Boeheim can't change human nature. He can only manage it. And that's hard, especially when the human nature in question is his own.
"I'm very thin-skinned, and I'm very sensitive, which is bad for coaches," Boeheim said. "If you criticize Bob Knight, you think he cares? He doesn't care. Bob Huggins? Mike Krzyzewski? They don't care ... because they absolutely don't think you know anything."
Boeheim cares. He can't help it. He knows he shouldn't listen to local sports-talk radio, but he does. He can sound defensive when people question his coaching. He passionately supports almost anybody who played for his program, even the guys who didn't achieve much at Syracuse. It was not surprising, then, that when the Fine allegations exploded in the media, so did Boeheim.
The Fine story has gotten both bigger and smaller since it broke on Nov. 17. In the midst of the Jerry Sandusky alleged child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, Bobby Davis, an Orange ball boy in the 1980s, reiterated claims he had made since 2002, that Fine had molested him when he was a child. Davis's stepbrother, Mike Lang, also accused Fine of molesting him. Then two other men came forward with similar claims, but one, Floyd (David) VanHooser, has since recanted, and the other, Zach Tomaselli, has reportedly admitted forwarding doctored e-mails to media outlets to support his claims and lying about the case, though he still says Fine molested him. "I had to fight back with lies," Tomaselli told The Post-Standard on Jan. 20. "All I wanted was some support back." When Davis's allegation became public, Boeheim lashed out, telling The Post-Standard that Davis "is trying to get money. He's tried before. And now he's trying again. If he gets this, he's going to sue the university and Bernie." He told the newspaper he "absolutely" believed the allegation was false.
Boeheim apologized about two weeks later, saying, "I shouldn't have questioned what the accusers expressed or their motives. I am really sorry that I did that, and I regret any harm that I caused."
Davis and Lang are suing Boeheim and Syracuse for defamation. Boeheim has stopped talking about the allegations, but he did tell SI that they have not distracted him from the games. Nothing ever does.
"It bothered me for a couple of days," he says. "But I did my job. It doesn't affect how I coach, it really doesn't."
Was he worried about getting fired?
"I knew there was no basis for me not to be here," he says. "I didn't know a thing. All I said was in defense of a guy I've known for 50 years."
Boeheim says he met with his players once to talk about Fine for "about 10 minutes.... I probably said something like, 'It's a terrible time for us and for me personally, because of a relationship of 36 years—50 years.... It has nothing to do with you guys. This is something I have to go through, and I'll go through it. I'll handle it.'"
Boeheim was the wrong coach to handle such a delicate matter publicly. But he has been the ideal coach to handle the season that followed. He doesn't try to control everything his players do—in the Syracuse family, everybody can go in different directions as long as the chores get done. You won't hear him talk about his "kids," because they are adults who play for his basketball team. Jardine says that on road trips, "Half the time I don't even see him. I see him when it's time to see him."
For most of his career—which includes three Final Fours and the 2003 national title—critics have said that he simply rolls out the balls at the start of practice. Here is more fodder for them: He isn't even on the court when it begins. He sits off to the side as his assistants put players through skill-development workouts for 35 minutes. But when practice starts to resemble a game, Boeheim gets involved. And when the real games start, Boeheim really takes over. He does not watch scouting tape obsessively, but he tunes into at least two games a night, every night, not counting Syracuse games or tape of upcoming opponents.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Boeheim fills out his coaches' poll ballot himself, with confidence, because he has seen every ranked team, most of them several times. "I didn't even need to watch the tape on Georgetown," he said after the Orange won 64--61 in overtime last week. "I know exactly what they're going to do. I just need to know who their shooters are. But I like to watch games and get a feel for a team."
Within the construct of the games, Boeheim is in complete control. Most college coaches call timeout, then huddle with their assistants to talk strategy before addressing the players. Boeheim leaves his assistants' brains unpicked.
"My job is to coach the game," he says. "To press if we're going to press, or change our zone, or trap in our zone, or which plays we're going to run, or who we're going to go to. That's my job. I've been doing this 36 years. Why would I want an assistant telling me what plays to run?"
Syracuse overflows with veteran talent, which means the relentless puzzle solver has as many pieces as he's ever had. The worrier in Boeheim sees a tough schedule ahead—Louisville usually gives Syracuse fits, UConn is a sleeping power, conference road games are always tough. And he wonders if the Orange's weakness on the boards will catch up with them at some point. (The team's defensive-rebounding average of 38.2 ranks 337th in the country according to kenpom.com.) The cynic in him says, Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to lose one or two more. Maybe that would push the Orange to improve.
"I really believe that we're not there," Boeheim says. "We have a big upside. We need these hard games. We may lose a game or two, but I think at the end we may come out a better team."
A program on the brink is putting together the ultimate program season. Some coaches would turn this into a book. Boeheim just wants to turn it into another national championship.