(The following is a guest post from NBC Sports Soccer’s Kyle Bonn, a Syracuse grad and Orange diehard, just like the rest of us)
Jim Boeheim has coached the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball program for nearly 43 years. He has led the Orange to five Big East Tournament titles, eight Big East regular season titles, five Final Fours, and one national championship. He has coached 23 first-round draft picks and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament three times.
And somehow, some way, a scrappy 23-13 team with six-and-a-half viable scholarship basketball players could make a legitimate case as the best single coaching job of his entire Hall of Fame career — or if not that, certainly top five.
When the season began, Syracuse was picked to finish 10th in the ACC. There was little respect for a squad whose most promising scoring threat is a sophomore who averaged just 11 points per game the previous year. The sanctions have left the Syracuse roster porous for years, and if the previous season was any indication, a limited offensive skillset would leave the team gasping for air at the end of the long campaign.
And yet, here the Orange sits, in the Sweet 16, having knocked off Arizona State, TCU, and Michigan State in a five-day stretch. So many people, sitting flabbergasted on their couches, are asking...how? There is no logical reason this team with these players should be one of the final 16 standing.
Except Syracuse has an X-Factor, one they have in the back pocket every single season, but one that made an exceptionally massive impact this campaign: Jim Boeheim and the 2-3 zone.
A roster that includes a possible NBA draft pick who’s struggled down the stretch, a streaky point guard only marginally improved from his painful first two seasons, a freshman Canadian product forced into a feature role, a scrappy European forward who only shoots as a last resort, and a 7-footer coming off retina surgery who has trouble dunking. The backup point guard left the program after six games. The third-string point guard is injured and out for the season. The backup center has tendonitis and can barely walk, let alone jump. A 6-4 walk-on-turned scholarship guard played the final seven minutes against Michigan State.
And yet somehow, Boeheim has taken this Island of Misfit Toys and brought them together better than any coach in the country could. The 73-year-old has this group playing a more cohesive 2-3 zone than any group of players at Syracuse in the last decade -- almost all of which were more talented. They switch on shooters, they rotate on perimeter passing, they close out on the drive-and-kick, they body up on big men, they go straight up for rebounds, and most importantly, they fight.
These guys fight like each game will be the last they will ever play. They fight like each rebound will win them the game, each loose ball will secure the final possession, and each pass could strike gold. They are highly coachable and rarely make the same mistakes from one game to another. And most importantly, they can score just enough to have more than the opponent at the end of the game.
Across the country, lazy journalists have crafted the narrative that watching this Syracuse team play is like watching paint dry; watching a Syracuse game is like conjuring the DMV on a basketball court. And yet, to Syracuse fans, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
To Syracuse fans, this might be one of the most fun teams to watch in years, because they play with heart, with passion, and with effort, and the fact they have gas in the tank at the end of every single game is an utterly mind-blowing credit to the coach who guides them through each 40-minute marathon with barely a rest. For most of ACC play, Tyus Battle averaged over 40 minutes per game. It’s ugly basketball because it has to be, if the players want to still be standing when the final whistle blows. Boeheim has found a way to keep his starting five on the court as long as possible, and still come away with more points than the opponent.
Boeheim secured his status as a Hall of Famer long ago with his laundry list of accomplishments, but even should the 2017/18 season come to a close in Omaha in the Sweet 16 — a relatively unremarkable finality for any blue blood program -- this season should long be remembered as one of Jimmy B’s greatest.
Even if it won’t be, in terms of record.