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With a loaded TBT roster, Boeheim’s Army feels different this year

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(in a very good way)

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Boeheim’s Army, the Syracuse Orange alumni team, has never necessarily been “underdogs” in The Basketball Tournament (TBT). Sure, there have been years with lower expectations than others. But since its inception in 2015, the squad has been one of the better supported and most recognizable collections of players in the event.

And yet, they’ve always felt like a plucky group of guys trying to make one last run at some NBA exposure, or perhaps a championship that eluded them during their time at SU. It always felt a lot more like that to me, anyway, especially compared to the mercenary-type approach of some other teams in the field — namely four-time defending champion Overseas Elite.

With that in mind, however, this year’s Boeheim’s Army roster feels different. There’s seemingly more NBA-level talent on the team than there ever has been, plus an emphasis on three-point shooting and transition basketball. Add in a true outsider in Jordan Crawford and the expectations going into the event that this could be the best squad in the field and it all seems less “Syracuse” than perhaps we’re used to. Which is likely a good thing for the purposes of this event.

As we’re all aware, SU men’s basketball is defined just as much by what it isn’t as what it isn’t. It’s the zone, Jim Boeheim, a perennial NCAA Tournament team and long one of the top programs in the Northeast. It’s not an NBA talent factory in the traditional sense (though check the draft receipts on that), nor is it a blueblood program despite all of the success. Reflecting both Boeheim himself and the CNY region as a whole, the Orange manage to remain — to us, anyway — underdogs and outsiders at the top of college basketball. They’ve been to the mountaintop, winning a title, making the Final Four numerous times and collecting a few No. 1 seeds. But the moments where Syracuse is THE favorite have been fleeting.

Which is why this feels so strange now as Boeheim’s Army embarks on year five with its best shot and perhaps a final one with some of the current core members.

In Tuesday’s Donna Ditota feature for Syracuse.com, Eric Devendorf’s age (32) and transition to more of a player-coach role was mentioned. Hakim Warrick is now 37 years old. Darryl Watkins is 34. Arinze Onuaku is 32.

There’s been an influx of youth and recent grads who can run a bit more, and that’ll likely take the load off of the older veterans a bit. That doesn’t mean all of the guys in their 30s want to do this forever — nor can you blame them for calling it at some point in the future. For them, this is less about getting NBA or overseas scouting exposure as it is just loving the game of basketball, and the potential payout ($150,000 apiece) that could come with a TBT championship.

That championship element is why it’s sort of appropriate that Warrick remains on the roster as a sheperd of sorts. He’s the lone player here to take home a title at Syracuse, and that balances out the rest of the group which is looking for the satisfaction a championship could’ve brought. For many of these players, it’s making up for some lost opportunities with the Orange as well.

Michael Gbinije made the Final Four with Syracuse during 2016’s miracle run before losing to UNC in the national semifinals. John Gillon and Andrew White III were on the “first team out” of the NCAAs in 2017, their lone season at SU. Chris McCullough got injured early in his Orange career and left for the NBA before we really knew what we had. Watkins was on teams with diminishing returns each year with the Orange. Brandon Triche is the winngest Syracuse player of all-time, with a Final Four trip in 2013, and the excruciating results of 2010 and 2012 also on the resume.

Speaking of, that brings us to Onuaku, and the 2010 injury that would mark the end of his Orange playing career and eventually the end of SU’s title hopes that season. Onuaku was incredible that season and a key part of how Syracuse won 28 games pre-NCAA Tournament and spent most of the year in the top five. Ask any ‘Cuse fan which year the team should’ve won it all and after 1987, this is probably the most common reply.

Onuaku winning TBT wouldn’t equal an NCAA Tournament championship (though, are we hanging a banner in the rafters if they do win TBT?). But there would be some karmic justice in him hoisting a trophy with Syracuse players nearly a decade after an injury thwarted that goal.

This year feels different, but different is good. Now hopefully this team can avoid another time-honored Syracuse tradition: Not following through as a favorite.