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Syracuse Basketball: A Final Four Trip Unlike Any Other

It seems like in sports we have to compare what's now to what was then. A philosophy that doesn't always fit.


To some Orange fans, it's like we've all hopped into the Delorean, we've gone back to the future -- 2013 is now 1996. Something that's been thrown around a lot the past week, or so.

And there is something of a comparison to be made, what with this Orange team struggling at points in the season, hitting the tournament with limited expectations, and is now Atlanta bound. Similarly, that Orangemen team did struggle at points in the season, and it did hit the tournament with limited expectations, somehow making a run to New Jersey -- considered a good thing at that point.

Actually, remember that Final Four? On one side of the draw stood Kentucky, the heir to the crown, a team loaded with future NBA players and Rick Pitino (about to make a very poor career choice.) UMass, the team the Wildcats would play in the national semifinals, had a young "genius" of its own, John Calipari (soon to make a similar career choice). Plus, the Minutemen had Marcus Camby, a game-changing force and, as it turns out, a basketball playing robot. That was the varsity matchup, the presumed "real national championship game."

On the other side of the bracket was the Junior Varsity game, five-seeded Mississippi State taking on four seed Syracuse. The Bulldogs were considered the "true" underdog -- having beaten big boys Connecticut and Cincinnati. Syracuse, with Jim Boeheim as coach, still not considered, as Bill Raftery calls him, the "Professor," and star John Wallace, and a lot of...interesting parts, was something of an afterthought.

Those "parts" for Boeheim featured players like Lazarus Sims, a homegrown point guard who battled consistency issues and battled to get out of Boeheim's doghouse. And Jason Cipolla, a junior college transfer, or Todd Burgan, a player who never really lived up to the hype. Marius Janulis and Otis Hill playing important roles. A collection of individuals who formed a unit that was probably a lot better than its parts.

It's not like that team wasn't talented, winning the Maui Invitational to start the year and even closing out the regular season with 8 wins in the final 9 games. But, even with a favorable draw and some upsets around, not many SU fans thought the West would be won by their team that year, especially with Kansas looming in the Elite Eight.

Which is similar to what's going on right now. Syracuse had to fly out west -- for the East region - and despite the trip, the draw wasn't horrible, that is until the Sweet 16 and Indiana. Winning the East wasn't totally out of the question, but it certainly wasn't likely.

And that's really where most of the similarities stop. This collection of Orange men has McDonald's All-Americans like Michael Carter-Williams and Dajuan Coleman and Rakeem Christmas. It has someone like C.J. Fair, a decent recruit who has worked himself into an NBA-caliber player. Plus, Brandon Triche is a four year starter, who despite having his ups and downs, has been a huge part of Syracuse's success the last four seasons.

Which leads me to another big point: In 1996, Syracuse was still feeling the effects of probation and scholarship reductions. The previous two seasons Syracuse was a 7 seed and a four seed, respectively. You could make the point that the past three or four seasons has been a true high-water mark for the program, having earned a couple of No. 1 seeds and reaching back-to-back Elite Eights.

Also, consider: Syracuse was a top-ten team throughout the year, including reaching as high as No. 3 in the polls after winning at then No. 1 Louisville.

So the last couple of weeks, although not exactly expected, isn't as out of the blue as Syracuse's run in 1996. It shouldn't have been, given the season and the players on the roster. The only real comparison is how the national media has all but forgotten about Syracuse. Vegas already has Michigan as a 2 point favorite, this despite Boeheim's 3 - 0 record in the national semis and his 9 - 0 record against John Beilein.

SU wasn't the national darling that Mississippi State was, and it wasn't the "blue-blood" like Kentucky. And I guess, just taking a quick summary of the early coverage, SU isn't the national darling Wichita State is and isn't the "blue-blood" is like Louisville (Despite Boeheim's record and Syracuse's profile. Which may have to do with the stigma of Bernie Fine or the threat of NCAA penalty, etc...).

But there is one more big difference between '96 and '13. 17 years ago I think a lot of fans, and maybe even the team to an extent, were happy that Syracuse was there. I don't think anyone expected Kentucky to lose and I don't think many people really believe Syracuse could win it all. But with all the talent -- even with some major flaws -- there isn't any reason to believe that Syracuse can't beat Michigan, can't beat Louisville (or the Shockers....I have to write that, right?), can't win it all.

And boy, wouldn't a national championship really prove now is different than then?