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Syracuse basketball: It won’t always be like this; not long ago, it was nothing like this

Matt McClusky looks back, past this year’s slog of an offense, to the “Fun and Gun” Orangemen of yesteryear.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

* While Syracuse continually has to rock-fight teams to death in order to get victories, it’s important to remember that offensively-minded help is on the way. And it doesn’t hurt to look back in time to a more “fun and gun” Syracuse past.*





A sarcastic chant.

A desperate plea.

Whatever it was, a restless fan screamed it out in my section of the Carrier Dome Tuesday night. The guy probably wasn’t just fed up with watching Syracuse’s ineptness with the basketball against Pitt, it was likely something boiling over for the last few weeks.

At the time, however, the Panthers were in the Orange-killing 2-3 zone, lulling Syracuse into its famous “keep passing it around the perimeter, while the big men run back and forth underneath the hoop” offensive set. Not only did that lead to bad, rushed shots, it also elicited some groans and moans from the restless people/Carrier Dome captives.

One guy, three rows back, started griping about Frank Howard’s handling of the point guard position. Another dude a few bleacher stickers away from me resorted to putting his head in his hands for—kind of scary—amounts of time. He had to figure the Dome concrete beneath him was probably more interesting than whatever was happening on the Dome hardwood. (Ed. note: not wrong!)

Seeing two hours’ worth of teams shooting 36-of-91 from the field, as was the case with SU and Pitt, left everyone as dazed as those poor rims had to be afterward.

Sure, there are obvious and sound reasons as to why the Syracuse program is at this weird offensively-challenged juncture. Maybe it’s due to players leaving early? Maybe it’s still the lingering side effects of those NCAA scholarship restrictions? And it possibly all has to do with some recent swings-and-misses on the recruiting trail. It really might just be a little from column A, B, and C. Whatever the case, this Orange outfit can D-up pretty good, however (get ready for some #analysis) it just can’t put the ball in the hoop consistently.

That’s likely to change next season, though. What with the likes of Darius Bazley, Jalen Carey and even Buddy Boeheim joining the fold, SU should be more up-tempo than it has been in years. Add to that a continued seasoning of Howard and Oshae Brissett, and who knows, maybe fans will be able to walk out of a few more games with tickets for free tacos?

So, my unsolicited recommendation would be to grasp, embrace, and clutch the fact that Syracuse isn’t a fun team to watch on offense. It’s going to have to keep sucking the lifeblood out of the opposition, out of the basketball, to earn more Ws this year. We’ve seen other Orange teams with similar issues in the past, and we’ll see them again at some point, too. It’s the nature of the college game for most programs not named Kentucky and Duke.

Now, when everything clicks, as was the case when Syracuse went 17-1 (eat it, NCAA) in the Big East back in 2012, it’s like nothing else. Watching sound, well-coached and talented players in up-and-down-the-court hoops is nirvana. If your team isn’t going to win it all, the least it could do would be to put fans into a zen-like state while watching it perform.

There was another point in Syracuse history where everything seemingly came together. One that seems like it might as well be an ancient part of history. Like something out of the Ice Age.

Let me take you back, just for a moment or two, to a time in which nothing could ever get more futuristic than Nintendo’s Game Boy. Back when The Simpsons was the most controversial smut on television, rotting all of our minds. The Cold War was ending, Exon was spilling its oil, and Sherman Douglas was the General.

In 1988-89, the senior point guard for Jim Boeheim was the Master of Ceremonies for Syracuse’s circus-like style.

As Mike Waters of and The Post-Standard reminded me last week on my radio show, Douglas had a season of securing at least three assists in every game except one, and that was because he left that contest injured. Conversely, and sadly, this year’s version of Syracuse had three total assists as a team against Virginia.


Back in that season, though, against Indiana on national television, Douglas made The Play. He picked up a loose ball on defense and, with his back facing teammates who were running go-routes in the opposite direction, Douglas snapped the basketball like a football. Streaking to the other hoop was wideout Stephen Thompson, one of the best athletes to ever play for Boeheim. He finished the play with a two-handed flush, almost like a touchdown being capped off with a massive spike of the football.

It was a classic, “What the? OH YEAH!” plays SU was absolutely famous for at the time.

A type of play that you can bet ain’t happening this season.

Douglas was a rare breed, someone with enough talent to take over any game at any point. Furthermore, like a quarterback on the gridiron, Douglas always seemed to get his teammate, the receiver, open. He scored 18 points a game, but dished out over eight assists per contest, too. Yes, he had Thompson, and the great Derrick Coleman, and the potentially greater Billy Owens to pass to. It was a loaded team. Still, Douglas ran the Boeheim offense better than anyone else not named “Pearl.” And truth be told, he probably was better suited for Boeheim’s vision of offense, only because Pearl was too good to be bogged down by calling plays.

And remember, this was back when being featured on the CBS Saturday or Sunday afternoon game was “primetime.” Syracuse was a regular featured attraction. Those broadcasts would open with wide camera shots of a full Dome, the lead announcer always starting with something about Syracuse’s “Fun and Gun” offense. How could the opponent score enough to stay with the Orangemen? Douglas didn’t create the alley-oop—a one-time staple of the SU offense that has also gone the way of the Game Boy—he just simply perfected the art.

Speaking of which: remember alley-oops? I’d bet Douglas fights off tears while watching Syracuse’s walking the call up the court on offense. Seriously, SU has failed to score 60 points in a game three times already, and there are 12 more games on the schedule.



The 1988-89 outfit hit triple figures nine times, including that famed game against the Hoosiers in the Garden and against Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Offense indeed.

Times, they are a different.

Of course, to compare college hoops from then to what’s played now is not a fair exercise. The collegiate version of the sport has changed in major ways. Most notably, the one-and-done freshmen have made “team continuity” what the Game Boy is to newest PlayStation or Xbox.

So instead of bemoaning about how less “fun” college basketball is nowadays, I just like to reminisce from time to time. Go on trip backward through memories, to when the action on the court was so furious you didn’t have time to think. That’s when “Taco Time” was actually “French fry time” and it was achieved only when the home Dome team scored 100 points.

Eventually, the future will become the past, repeating itself. There will once again be happy people in the Dome watching a “Fun and Gun” Orange team. Maybe as early as 2019. It could even be close to the way it was back in the late 80s: fans’ faces too full of fries to chant, too entertained to be bored.