For summer after summer, we’ve been tuning into The Basketball Tournament to see if Boeheim’s Army, the team initially comprised of Syracuse Orange men’s basketball alumni, could win it all. And for summer after summer, we — and the players — were disappointed.
That’s not a knock on the teams or the players on them. It just didn’t work out, as is the case with sports most of the time. And coupled with what’s been an an exhausting half-decade or so for SU hoops, it definitely got tougher and tougher to remain as invested watching the Orange alumni squad. After a trying SU sports calendar every year, I know that I personally have felt like I could use a reprieve.
And then this year’s TBT happened.
While the initial hook (for fans) for Boeheim’s Army was a team of your favorite recent Syracuse alums, that concept has obviously evolved over time. This year was the clearest sign of that yet, with former Orange players joining forces with a large group of non-SU players like Tyrese Rice, DeAndre Kane, D.J. Kennedy and Keifer Sykes. Yes, the same Keifer Sykes that wound up winning the whole thing for Boeheim’s Army on a heave of a three-point shot.
While it wasn’t the majority of Syracuse fans, you definitely heard plenty of complaints that this year’s squad that it wouldn’t be as fun because of all of the non-Syracuse additions. The franchise those fans signed up for was apparently one that was static. Only Orange alums. Only 2-3 zone. Only something resembling the SU men’s basketball program they’re obsessed with as much as humanly possible.
This group clearly wasn’t that. The zone was tossed aside. Lineups were frequently light on Syracuse players. Jeremy Pope’s coaching didn’t resemble Jim Boeheim’s in the eyes of fans, even if he sometimes leaned into a short bench in similar ways to the hall-of-fame coach. And yet, it all worked. Terrifyingly, mind you, in the final three games of this championship run. But it did work.
You could argue it did because this team found a way to buck every expectation around it, and the weight of the Syracuse “way” of doing things, and just wound up playing the best version of basketball they could.
Getting past the mythos and ideas around Syracuse may have been the first opponent to beat before they even took the court. That doesn’t mean Orange hoops is something “bad’ to be exorcised. But there’s weight involved there, and tying the group too much to its namesake could have been part of recent struggles. Instead, the 2021 edition tied itself to Boeheim in ways that were a little more subtle... until they weren’t at the very end. Though every game taking years off your life was about as derivative of a Boeheim tournament run as one can get.
Forever a Syracuse legend— TBT (@thetournament) August 4, 2021
Tyrese Rice is your TBT 2021 MVP!!!!! pic.twitter.com/r3uwFgyLOi
So what will we remember about this run? Honestly, for me, it’s everything it wasn’t. It wasn’t very “Syracuse,” as exemplified by the fact that (former Boston College standout) Rice was the best player in TBT, and probably contributed more clutch and crucial moments to Orange fans’ memories than all but a handful of players in the last few seasons.
That and Sykes hitting the game-winner (along with the contributions of Kennedy and Kane) are why this could seem like a mercenary squad on paper. This team absolutely needed those additions to win it all, and wouldn’t have progressed very far without them. Yet, the ultimate goal was taking home a championship and the million dollars that comes with it. And you couldn’t have done it without the Syracuse players either; from on-the-court production to Eric Devendorf’s spiritual leadership that’s been at the center of this group year-in and year-out.
There’s no right way to win a championship, just like there’s really no right way to be a fan. If this year’s team having less Orange flavor means the win meant less to you so be it. But I’d challenge anyone to stand by that statement as Sykes’s shot went up and in on Tuesday night. No, it didn’t feel like an NCAA championship. But it certainly felt like Syracuse winning.