1996 seems like so long ago.
I was a sophomore at Syracuse University when John Wallace led the Orange(men) to the 1996 Final Four. I didn’t have a cell phone or a laptop, certainly no Twitter or Facebook. Hell, I had only gotten my first email address just a couple of years prior. Stone Age stuff, I know.
It seems like an eternity ago, doesn’t it?
Sometimes it seems like it was yesterday.
There are some parallels between this year’s team and the 1996 squad, who went 29-9 and lost to Kentucky in the national championship game. You had a senior star (John Wallace) who was the unquestioned leader of the team, at least going into the season. Wallace had returned to the hill after dabbling with and ultimately staying out of the NBA Draft in the summer of 1995. Scouts saw a 6’8” tweener forward with a pro body, but someone who was a little too short to play power forward and not quite skilled enough to play small forward.
Wallace’s decision to return may have been the smartest any SU player has ever made.
The remainder of the SU starting lineup was solid, but not spectacular. Junior Otis Hill was a powerfully built wrecking ball of a center, a 6’8” post player with sneaky moves who was kind of a prototype for what Arinze Onuaku would become a decade later. 6’7” sophomore small forward Todd Burgan was an athletic wing who was as comfortable driving the lane as he was stepping back for a three. 6’4” senior point guard Lazarus Sims was a pass-first ballhandler who was comfortable in his role as a distributor and excelled at setting his teammates up for easy opportunities. 6’5” sophomore guard Marius Janulis was the team’s resident sharpshooter, until a midseason lineup change saw him coming off the bench in favor of 6’7” swingman Jason Cipolla, a more athletic perimeter player who was tailor made for the zone defense. More on Marius and Jason in a second.
Much like in 2013, Jim Boeheim relied heavily on his starters for minutes, and really only played a seven man rotation. After the Cipolla/Janulis switch Marius was the primary guard off the pine, while center J.B. Reafsnyder was the top reserve big man. There was also a scrappy freshman guard/forward named Donovan McNabb on the roster, but he would only play five games that year and saved his best most memorable hoops exploits for subsequent seasons.
Like most SU teams, this squad feasted on early season competition. They won their first eleven, and were looking good until they ran into Marcus Camby
Lou Roe and John Calipari’s UMass team in the Maui Rainbow Classic. The Minutemen defeated the Orangemen in the title game, handing SU their first loss of the year.
That loss sent SU into a bit of a tailspin, where they lost several conference games. And just like in 2013, a lineup change helped spark the team and get them back on track. With Cipolla now starting and Janulis coming off the bench, SU got back to its winning ways and finished fourth overall in the conference (second in their division, back when the Big East had two divisions). This was in a loaded year for the Big East, with powerhouse conference rivals boasting big name players like Kerry Kittles (Villanova), Ray Allen (Connecticut), Othella Harrington (Georgetown) and others.
But then, like now, SU righted itself when the postseason came around. They made a respectable run in the Big East Tournament, beating Notre Dame and Boston College before losing to eventual tourney champ UConn. They then waited for their fate in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s where things really got interesting.
Just like in 2013, Syracuse received a #4 seed and was sent out to the West Region. And just like in 2013, SU had to beat a team from Montana (Montana State) in the round of 64. They then took out the 12 seed (Drexel) in the round of 32 to advance to the Sweet 16.
In the Sweet 16, SU faced Georgia. The Orangemen caught a break when the Bulldogs upset #1 seed Purdue in the previous game. The contest was tight for most of the game, and it took a halfcourt pass from Wallace to Cipolla, who sank a baseline jumper with time about to expire, to send the game into overtime. Check it out:
That wasn’t even the craziest sequence of the game. In overtime, SU and Georgia has one of the most frantic exchanges in tournament history, culminating with Wallace hitting a running/leaning three with about two seconds left to win the game 83-81. I won’t even try to describe it, so just watch for yourself:
By the way, Wallace put up 30 points and 15 rebounds in that game. No big deal.
The Georgia game was when SU fans started to realize that maybe the basketball gods were on their side.
In the Elite 8, Syracuse took on the Jayhawks, the #2 seed, led by future NBA stars Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz and Jacque Vaughn. In a major upset, the Orangemen defeated the Jayhawks 60-57 behind Hill’s 15 points, including two clutch free throws late to help seal the game. Wallace also pitched in 15 to help send SU to the Final Four, and the team’s celebration became legendary for their “Cuse is in ‘da house” chant as well as announcer Al McGuire’s spastic dance which may have been the greatest thing in the history of televised basketball. His subtle on-air busting of Boeheim's balls isn't bad either:
With apologies to Bill Raftery, McGuire became my favorite college hoops analyst that night.
SU went on to the Final Four in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The good news was that it was only a few hours’ drive from Syracuse. The bad news is that it was played in a 20,000 seat NBA arena instead of an NFL dome, so tickets were much more scarce. I chose to watch from my dorm, which is a mistake I still regret to this day.
SU was matched up in the early game, taking on Mississippi State and center Erick Dampier. I recall the Orangemen (I really miss typing that) taking a beating on the glass by the taller Bulldogs, but making up for it with a trapping defense that forced several turnovers and allowed SU to score in transition. Sound familiar? SU won 77-69 to set up a clash with Rick Pitino-led Kentucky in the title game.
Now the Wildcats of 1996 were no joke. No fewer than eight future NBA players were on that roster, including the likes of Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty and Derek Anderson. They were led by the aforementioned Pitino, who of course worked under Boeheim in the 1970s and had come to Lexington after stints with Providence College and the New York Knicks.
The game was expected to be lopsided, but the Orangemen played well despite facing superior depth and Pitino’s trademark pressure defense. Despite foul trouble and 20+ turnovers the Orange stayed within four points late in the game, but when Wallace fouled out it pretty much took the life out of the team and they ultimately fell 76-67. Wallace and Burgan were named to the all-tournament team, and Wallace actually lead the tournament in scoring with 128 total points while Burgan led in rebounds with 51 - both in six games.
That 1996 run was unforgettable for those of us who lived through it. It elevated Wallace to legend status among many SU fans, and it’s a crime that his jersey hasn’t yet been raised to the Carrier Dome roof alongside those of Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas and Carmelo Anthony. It also nailed down a spot for Wallace in the first round of the NBA Draft, going to the New York Knicks with the 18th pick in one of the loudest draft ovations heard before or since.
Sure, it will be great if this year’s team wins the national championship, and I’ll be rooting for them as hard as anyone, but that 1996 team will always hold a special place in my basketball memories. Now I have to work on forgiving Pitino and some of those same Wildcats for messing up my beloved Boston Celtics in the late 90s…