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Syracuse men’s basketball rewatch: Observation’s from 1996 Final Four win over Mississippi State

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We observed things and stuff from the 1996 National Semifinal between Syracuse and Mississippi State.

1996 Final Four

Ed. note - Today we continue along with our Syracuse men’s basketball rewatch series. If you missed the introduction to this series, click here for more information.

For those of you that have been following along, we took the TNIAAM time machine back to 1996 to cover the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team’s Final Four win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs. We’re now back to present day to talk about that game in hindsight. It’s like we’re living out a Netflix series of Manifest or Dark around here.

If you’re asking us if we chose that game only because Mississippi State won the CWS, the answer is no. We had that game circled on our calendar but also you’re right. The timing is curious, isn’t it?

Anyway, we’ll get into the game in greater detail but first, here are my haphazard, capital J game notes:

  • Otis Hill is underrated
  • This was the first and last FF in the Meadowlands
  • Those Syracuse jerseys were dope
  • Erick Dampier, what ever happened to him?
  • What is with this court colorway?
  • The Statue of Liberty logo is peak NJ energy
  • John Wallace was a bucket before the term bucket was conceived
  • It’s obvious Syracuse is looking to post Hill and Wallace every time down
  • J.B. Reafsnyder! Legend
  • Big Country nickname is very 1996
  • Boeheim looks the same age in 1996 as he does in 2021. That’s either a compliment to 2021 or an insult in 1996. Not sure
  • That Wallace dunk off the lob from Sims. Sheesh
  • Syracuse had the ‘bad free throw shooting team’ label back then too, even though the ‘96 team wasn’t bad
  • The 2-3 zone halfcourt trap is undervalued
  • Reafsnyder putback! Good minutes from him
  • Burgan really came on late in this game
  • Boeheim doesn’t look excited about the win at all. It’s like he’s already worried about playing for the National Championship despite being seconds away from a Final Four win. Not surprising, just interesting
1996 Final Four

First things first. We have to talk about those jerseys. They’re not script level but they’re pretty darn close. The ‘S-Y-R-A-C-U-S-E’ font pops and the orange and blue trim around the arms and collar just works. The shorts are fresh with a trim along the waistline, the old logo on the sides and a blue stripe at the bottom. Perfect. Maybe you could get rid of the second orange stripe around the jersey collar and find a way to make the sides flow better into the shorts, but that’s small potatoes.

Syracuse and Nike have since gone away from including blue on jerseys, but the these throwbacks are sweet. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to include these throwbacks once a year (in addition to the script) against a former Big East team.

Related:

Okay, now we’ll take it from the top. You might recall No. 4 seeded Syracuse make its tournament run with Sweet 16 theatrics over Georgia. Jason Cipolla hit the game-tying jumper in regulation and John Wallace made the game-winning three in overtime with just seconds remaining. The Orange then knocked off Paul Pierce and Kansas in the Elite Eight to get Jim Boeheim to his second Final Four.

The 1996 Final Four at the Meadowlands was the last of its kind. Every Final Four since has been held in a football stadium.

1996 Final Four

That Final Four logo with the Statue of Liberty is hilarious and proof that New Jersey really just wants to be New York. It’s kind of like how New Jersey is the self-proclaimed bagel capital when everybody knows that’s not true. Which reminds you that the Nets used to play in New Jersey before moving to Brooklyn. New York is what New Jersey thinks it is and that was as true in 1996 as it was today. (Yes, I understand the NCAA made that logo but this felt like an opportune time to throw a jab at New Jersey.)

Back to the game, Mississippi State starts out strong and builds an early lead but Syracuse is able to weather the storm thanks to the play of Otis Hill. Syracuse looked to establish him early in the paint as well as John Wallace (remember those times?). Hill is one of the more underrated Syracuse players, if for no other reason than he just happened to play alongside Wallace. He was dominant in the first half against Erick Dampier, who would eventually go on to have a long 16 year NBA career.

The Bulldogs had a really good chance to run away with things as they were scoring at will, but turnovers gave Syracuse ample opportunity to get back in the game. Some turnovers were forced, some were simple mistakes, like poorly thrown passes to Dampier’s feet. Syracuse was able to take care of the ball and score on the Bulldogs’ missed opportunities.

Just prior to the half, Boeheim goes with a half-court trap out of the 2-3 zone. It’s a good call given how the Bulldogs were careless with the ball. It makes you wonder why the trap isn’t used more often. The elementary explanation of the trap: The two top guards in the 2-3 zone rush the ball hander as soon as he crosses half-court. The intent is to make the point guard sh*t his pants and rush into a pass with the half-court line acting as an additional defender. The forwards and the center try to jump the pass from the bottom of the zone.

In this case, the point handles the pressure but the team is rushed. Russell Walters loses control and Marcus Bullard turns it over. It’s a high-risk, high-reward type of play as if the pass gets through, the center is usually the last line of defense in a two- or three-on-one situation.

The last time (if memory serves correct) Syracuse utilized this was the 2019 NCAA Tournament game against Baylor just before the half. It makes a lot of sense to use it in that scenario. If your opponent is holding for the last shot, you get a chance at a turnover. If they run the clock down after beating the trap, no harm is done. If they score, then they score early and your team still gets one extra offensive possession before the half. For those of you basketball coaches that already understand this I’m sorry for wasting your time.

Anyway, both teams go into the half tied even though Mississippi State out-rebounds Syracuse and shoots it better from the floor.

The second half starts similar to the first with Mississippi State struggling to take care of the ball. The 2-3 zone eventually tightens up and Wallace and Todd Burgan emerge on the offensive end. The Bulldogs panic down the stretch, fail to execute and the Syracuse lead balloons to as much as 14. A few late Bulldog 3s make the score look respectable, but Syracuse cruised to victory late.

The win was significant for obvious reasons, but it set the stage for Boeheim’s second appearance in the title game where SU would eventually fall to a loaded Kentucky team. You can imagine how that loss surely made the 2003 title game all that more nerve-wracking. The run to the title game was unexpected and gave credence to the narrative that Boeheim does his best work when least expected.