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SU Basketball: Billy Owens & The Team He Was Created For

It's crazy that Billy Owens left Syracuse 24 years ago, isn't it? A transcendent player who you could pick up and drop in any era of basketball and he would be great. But this version of Syracuse basketball seems tailor-made for him.

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Legacy is often considered and confused as singular. Almost no one gets out of life leaving just one rippling effect. One person's hero can be the devil incarnate to someone else. For all the fans and supporters, there will be about the same amount of haters and nonbelievers. Someone can accomplish the great but be remembered for something different and otherwise benign. Whatever was the result, it can and likely will be both cherished and ridiculed.

For example: Billy Owens, Syracuse legend. The six-foot-eight Owens was probably the most sought after recruit to ever sign on the dotted line for Jim Boeheim. Owens came out of Carlisle, Pennsylvania as someone who could shoot the lights out and handle the ball while banging with the bigs down low. Nothing seemed off limits for him. A three from the top of the key on a fast break? A coast-to-coast jam? A slightly-off-balanced 17-footer? All in the repertoire. Basically, he was a smaller but more athletic Dirk Nowitzki. Or maybe he was like a more physical Kevin Durant. Scottie Pippen? Okay, those comparisons are probably off, but then again, they're not THAT wrong either. Everyone wanted the kid and Boeheim got him, and in three seasons on the Hill, Owens put on one hell of a show.

(So many things from that video! First, a young old-looking Jim Boeheim! Secondly, the Paul Evans perm! And lastly, holy hell was that SU team loaded! And you know what's even worse - without looking it up - Syracuse somehow lost to Pitt that night. I remember cursing out all things Panthers basketball for days afterward.)

For another example of the legacy prism: Billy Owens, bust. After leaving Syracuse as a junior, the second (my mistake)  to do so under Boeheim's watch, Owens flamed out of the NBA. Often looking disinterested, Owens ended up playing for six different teams, never lasting for more than three seasons with any of them. For all the hype surrounding him even before coming to Syracuse or being drafted third by Sacramento, he just never seemed to truly justify it.

(And who can forget he was a leader on the team that was upset by Villanova in the Big East tournament in 1991, following that stunner with a No-Way-This-Is-Going-To-Happen defeat to Richmond in the first round of that NCAA tournament. That - OF COURSE - was the first time a two seed ever lost to a fifteen. It was such a bad loss that Wikipedia has even blocked it out! But no Syracuse fan would consider his time as an Orangeman a disappointment.)

The many legacies of Billy Owens: One of the best and one of the busts.

There's both truth and fallacy in those arguments. Owens wasn't exactly Michael Jordan out there but he wasn't a failure either. Hell, he played 12 seasons in the Association, averaging just over 11 points and 6.7 boards per game while shooting nearly fifty-percent from the field. He did give us this, too:

That's a 27 point, 17 rebound, four assist playoff game against the still-loaded '94 Phoenix Suns! I remember watching that game and thinking over and over again: I love watching Billy Owens play ball.

It's really what most people thought for Owens' entire three years playing for Boeheim. As a frosh he jumped right in and averaged 13 points every time out. By his second season at Syracuse, Owens was a major piece to that Sweet 16 puzzle. For his junior season, Owens played every game like he was the only one on the ice with skates, everyone else slipping and sliding just trying to keep up. He always seemed destined for something bigger and something better, but I suppose that didn't work out.

I can't speak to what happened at the next level. Maybe he was traded to the wrong team in Golden State. Maybe he just didn't have the same work ethic after he started to get paid (for his career Owens amassed over $26 million). It's a shame he didn't leave that indelible mark on the basketball nation, though, because he should be one of those legendary players. While we hear and read about the "changing game of basketball," where positions are just labels and big men are expected to handle the ball or shoot jumpers and offenses are predicated on three-pointers, Billy Owens was doing that two decades ago.

For him at Syracuse, with teammates like Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas, Stevie Thompson, Dave David Johnson, Adrian Autry, I always wondered: What if those teams had just one more shooter? It's something Owens has publicly asked about too. Those late 80's and early 90's teams were fun as anything to watch, flying up and down the court, alley-oops as common as bounce passes. But long-distant shooting was like free throws back then: Bricks. Really, it just wasn't apart of the offense. (Johnson was the second-best three-point shooter, hitting 38 of his 100 attempts in '91). But if there were shooters? Owens would have had even more space in which to sprint, spin, soar and score.

What would Owens be like on this Syracuse team? It's what I've been asking myself while reading about this version of Syracuse University basketball.

Boeheim says the Orange may have to shoot 25 or 30 threes in some games this year. That's not at all like the rock fights we've been watching the past few seasons. And the two freshman, Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon, aren't just the typical "wing zone defenders." These guys can supposedly shoot the ball, with Boeheim saying Lydon may actually be the best shooter on the team. Whoa. This sounds a lot like a team that will put spacing first, going inside only to set up the outside. It reads a lot like what Stan Van Gundy has been doing for years. What Golden State did to take the NBA crown just last season. A little like the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns? Maybe? It sounds like Boeheim and Mike Hopkins and the rest of the coaches are adjusting to the game through recruiting, again.

It sounds like Billy Owens would be perfect for this team.

Which is a stupid statement, as we've already established: Billy Owens would have or should have been perfect for any team.

But imagine Owens streaking up the court and no-looking a bullet to Lydon or Richardson? Or Mike Gbinije zipping a pass around the horn to a wide-open-on-the-wing Owens? *Faints* I know these types of scenarios are usually just a practice in wasting time. Owens is long since retired and who knows how it would have played out back in his prime on the Hill. Maybe Owens' successes at Syracuse wouldn't have been what they were if he had different running mates. Who knows how any of it would play out?

I do know it's never bad to bring up Billy Owens and how he played. It's something we should talk about more, really. With all the reminiscing typically focusing on Carmelo Anthony or way back to Pearl Washington, Owens is a superstar possibly a little lost in the shuffle. That seems wrong.

But this '15-16 team has me walking down the memory halls thinking about what can't be but what would be a lot of fun to watch. Sure, recent SU collections have been good and have given all fans many a moment to remember: top seeds in the tournament, top-five rankings, a Final Four run, and crazy winning streaks. Yet they haven't been too basketball aesthetic, right? Built on length, Syracuse's zone defense and rebounding were in its DNA. Now, it seems that the Orange will be a little smaller than we've grown accustom to seeing. It'll also be a little less predicated on pounding teams into submission, maybe a little Shawn Michaels dancing around the ring instead of Steve Austin punching and kicking away to victory.

And that type of approach on offense, where there's a little more rhythm in the run and shooters shooting, could make a Lydon or a Richardson or even someone else already on the roster another Syracuse superstar. Someone worth remembering years and years after they're gone, just like Mr. Owens.