As discussed many times on this site, Syracuse Orange men’s basketball fandom is an interesting gig.
While the Orange have been a national brand for decades, we suffer from equal bouts of superiority and inferiority complexes. Syracuse hasn’t had a losing season in over 50 years and is an NCAA Tournament fixture. Yet, also has just six Final Four bids (same as Houston, Arkansas and Cincinnati, among others), and has only won a single NCAA Tournament title.
That last fact is a frequent source of derision from our old Big East brethren like UConn, and rightfully so at times, given how frequently some truly great Syracuse teams have fallen short. But having that one title allows us a unique bit of perspective among the sport’s top programs. We have a single year that we cling to as tightly as possible, as a confluence of all of the greatest things about Orange men’s hoops.
So when tasked with discussing the GOAT for Syracuse, the simplest way is to point to the only time we’ve reached the promised land. For one night in April 2003, SU fans got the unique perspective of seeing its greatest coach, player, season and game all boiled down to the mere seconds of its greatest moment: The Block, courtesy of Hakim Warrick.
Like the 1987 national title game before it, legacies were altered in an instant when Warrick’s feat of athleticism prevented what could’ve been the game-tying shot for Kansas’s Mike Lee. Instead of the sorrow that Keith (Effing) Smart provided 16 years earlier, though, Syracuse and Jim Boeheim got the celebration they’d waited decades for.
Admittedly, it may not have been SU’s greatest season if not for that one play going our way. You could argue several of the late 1980s teams were better from regular season into the NCAAs, and a similar case can be made for the 2010 and 2012 squads. But because of the championship outcome, our greatest coach (Boeheim, with no competition whatsoever) and arguably the greatest player of the Boeheim era, Carmelo Anthony, get the distinction of piloting SU’s greatest season.
If Carmelo being the “greatest” is a point of contention, that’s fair. Though his single-season totals (22.2 points and 10 rebounds per game) remain impressive as hell for any player, let alone a freshman, you could argue other Orange greats have been more dominant and for longer periods with Syracuse, too. Dave Bing wasn’t coached by Jim, but clearly holds the title of top player given his three-year averages of 24.8 points and 10.3 rebounds.
Keeping things to Boeheim squads, until recently, Lawrence Moten had scored more points than any Big East player ever. Derrick Coleman was a force inside while posting 15 points and nearly 11 boards over four seasons. You could try to make cases for guys like Warrick, John Wallace, Gerry McNamara and the late Pearl Washington, too.
Realistically, though, Carmelo’s single season was as impressive a display as we’ve seen since Boeheim took over the program — and it’s the primary reason why the 2003 team was able to take home that title. Boeheim’s had other star players in the past. He’s never had a guy that could make as much happen on the offensive end as Anthony was able to.
Speaking of Boeheim, while we know there’s no debate for the Orange’s top coach, it is worth discussing his credentials as college basketball’s coaching GOAT. No, he ultimately can’t claim the title due to the aforementioned lack of Final Four appearances and titles compared to his peers. Yet, for Syracuse’s purposes, he’s still managed to do something incredibly impressive by making a private school in Central New York nationally relevant nearly every year despite lacking the resources of his competition.
The other side of that coin, of course, arrives quickly. While Syracuse has a recent tradition of surpassing expectations, that follows an earlier reputation for falling short in the NCAA Tournament. Potential peer programs like UConn and Villanova experiencing greater success than the Orange from a titles perspective certainly zooms in on some of SU’s shortcomings further. And it would be disingenuous to discuss Boeheim’s GOAT credentials — for this school or nationally — without adding those clear caveats.
And yet, it’s those shortcomings that make this entire conversation so worthwhile for Syracuse fans in the first place. Having one title, paired with the heartbreak of what could’ve been, makes Orange men’s basketball (and football, for that matter) fans uniquely appreciative of all of those great things that came together to provide for one championship.
As a fan of mostly moribund sports enterprises (the Mets, Rangers and Knicks provide annual torment with little reprieve, while the Giants have taken success completely off the table in recent years following two surprise titles in a five-year span), the question’s long lingered for me as a Syracuse fan: What would it feel like to have more?
We know, to some extent, with men’s lacrosse, of course. It does feel different when looking back at any title. You can rank which were best, quibble about greatness and bask in a long tradition of championship-level play few can match (/glares at MLAX’s current Final Four drought).
But oddly, I do enjoy the fact that Syracuse men’s basketball gets to point directly to one game for everything unequivocally great, and just close the book. It makes watching The Block highlights that much more rewarding, and the title banner at the Dome that much more enjoyable to see hanging. Would I take another? Of course. Who wouldn’t? I’d bet for many Orange fans, though, it still wouldn’t compare to the GOAT in 2003, though.