When the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team takes the floor tonight at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic, the program will renew a longstanding series with old Big East rival Villanova. The matchup marks the first time the two storied programs have met since 2014.
Syracuse owns the all-time series 39-33 but Wright has beaten Boeheim head-to-head 12 times in 21 games. Wright, who roomed with Boeheim during his stint with USA Basketball, spoke at length on Monday night about the rivalry and Boeheim, who is still coaching at age 77.
“I tell you what,” Wright began, “Jim is amazing to me and I have spent enough time with him to know his energy. He’s actually a pretty healthy guy. He takes care of himself. He’s smart.”
Wright mentioned his experiences with Team USA in Brazil from 2016 when it went on to win the gold medal. Wright lived with Boeheim and had the chance to watch how he goes about his days and noted how the longtime Syracuse coach eats healthy, doesn’t drink alcohol and works out. Boeheim has done Pilates for years and performs the exercise twice per week.
“He’s a really, really competitive guy,” Wright continued. “He’s one of the guys that I’ve learned as much from him as anybody. A lot of the experience I had with USA Basketball was because of him. He got me the opportunities. He let me be his assistant. He got me with the national team. He’s been great to me so he’s one of my idols.”
Boeheim of course is in his 46th season as the head coach of Syracuse. He’s something of an aberration as the oldest to ever hold a head coaching position in division one basketball. Asked if Wright could continue coaching at age 77, he shot down that idea immediately.
“Not because I wouldn’t want to. I know I don’t take care of myself as well as he does,” he said.
While Villanova and Syracuse are in different conferences these days, the two northeast private institutions still compete in recruiting. Villanova has edged out Syracuse for talent in recent years, but Wright suggested that Boeheim still works as hard as ever on the recruiting front.
“I wish people would know how hard he works in recruiting. You see him at all the events. You see him out all the time, seeing games, seeing guys play. It’s always kind of motivating for me,” Wright declared.
One of those recruits that Villanova beat out Syracuse for (at least initially) was Cole Swider. The Orange recruited him heavily out of high school and cultivated a relationship with the 6-foot-9 forward. Swider attended St. Andrews in Rhode Island, which is the same high school that sent Demetris Nichols and Michael Carter-Williams to Syracuse.
Swider initially elected to play for the Wildcats over the Orange, but with the one-time transfer rule into effect, Swider left Villanova for Syracuse last spring, citing a better program fit.
“Here we run a lot of down screens, a lot of stagger screens,” Swider told TNIAAM in the preseason. “The offense runs through the shooters. I think it’s been a great adjustment. It’s a perfect fit for me.”
Wright corroborated that sentiment.
“He thought the style of play fit him better is what he said. He’s such a good kid. He handled everything so well. Everybody here loves him, still does,” Wright continued, “Here he was expanding his game, playing more out on the perimeter more. There he plays on that backline of the zone and he does what he does well.”
Swider wanted to showcase more of his offensive game rather than just be a catch and shoot player. In Villanova’s switch-everything defensive scheme in man-to-man he was often pulled away from the basket, which put him in space against quicker offensive players and didn’t allow him to rebound the ball as much as he would’ve liked.
“I was one of the first people who knew about it but I was shocked at first,” Collin Gillespie said of Swider’s intent to transfer. “But then you just learn to accept it and you want what’s best for him. I think he found a home that he loves. I’m happy that he’s happy there.”
“He was one of our buds obviously. We came up together,” Brandon Slater said. “We were roommates. It’s nice to see him thriving on another team and him being able to expand his game.”
GIllespie said Swider worked hard on his game while he was at Villanova. He’s aware of Swider’s tendencies and knows what his team will see from him tonight.
“He’s a great shooter, had a great IQ for the game and always played hard. He competed on every possession so we know what to expect out of him,” Gillespie said.
Swider is averaging 13.1 points per game thus far for Syracuse while playing 33 minutes. The heavy minutes log is new for him and he’s playing more off the dribble. The 2-3 zone would seem to suit his style of playing rather than man-to-man.
“I do think Syracuse is a good fit,” Wright continued. “We still wish he was here, but it is a good fit and he’s playing extremely well.”
Wright thinks Swider has become a complete player and mentioned that he’s “blossoming” at Syracuse. He currently leads the team in rebounding with 6.9 boards per game. He’s coming off a double-double at Florida State on Saturday.
“He really is a good rebounder. He always was. Just the way we played he wasn’t always in position to rebound. But it does suit his game, the way he rebounds,” Wright divulged.
When Syracuse and Villanova tip tonight, two of the top 20 offenses in the country will face off. The Orange have struggled defensively to start this season; it’s the offense that has won games over Arizona State and Indiana.
The Wildcats will be prepared for the Syracuse 3-point offensive salvo.
“The firepower they have between the Boeheims, Joe Girard and Cole Swider is scary. We’re going to have to guard them. You don’t play against anybody that plays the zone as well as they do. They’re even, this year, adding a 1-3-1 it’s pretty effective. They did a great job against Florida State with that 1-3-1 zone.”
Syracuse has actually been running a 1-1-3 that looks like a 1-3-1 at times. The Orange held Florida State to 60 points on Saturday, the lowest they’ve held any other team this season. But Syracuse has been subpar on the defensive end this season, giving up just over one point per possession, ranking No. 157 in KenPom.
Gillespie says the team prepared as if the zone is like any other that they’ll go against.
“They’re long, they have a bunch of shooters out there so they try to get stops and rebounds and get out really fast. Their length bothers you. They do a good job of containing and contesting late because they’ve got long guys,” he said.
During the scout, Wright went though old tapes against Syracuse from the Big East to get his team prepared, adding that the new defense is something else his team will have to anticipate. He sees zone in the Big East now, but not exclusively in the way Syracuse plays it.
“From playing against Jim Boeheim we’ve all stolen some zone concepts from him. Some of us better than others. I think Kevin Willard’s taken some of it. They use it a little bit at Seton Hall. I think Providence has used some of it. I think Georgetown has some of it. But no one does it like Syracuse.”
Villanova and Syracuse have played just twice since the Orange left for the ACC in 2013. Syracuse took the first meeting in a matchup of two top ten teams as the Orange mounted a comeback facing a 25-7 deficit inside the Carrier Dome. Villanova won the following year, an overtime victory in the Wells Fargo center.
With much history and so many storied matchups between the two programs, it makes sense why television beckons and fans clamor for more of these old Big East meetings. Still, with non-conference schedules getting squeezed with more league games on top of multiple-team events, Gavitt Games, ACC/Big Ten and SEC/Big East Challenges, it would be hard to expect to see this matchup with great frequency.
“Since the new Big East was formed we’ve played them a couple times. We’ve tried to schedule them. I know they like playing at the garden. We do also. When it’s available I think both of us would like to but both of us have so many other commitments that it’s hard to do it every year,” Wright finished.