SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The skies are decidedly colder, the days are definitively shorter, and it’s officially basketball season in Central New York.
Only this time it’s different.
For the first time in 48 seasons, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball program has a new head coach. Adrian Autry represents the eighth and the first actual game of his career goes down in the win column. There was mostly man-to-man defense and there was some 2-3 zone from Syracuse. There was tempo and there was depth. And this time it counted for real.
The preparation for Autry looks fairly similar to how it did when he was the Associate Head Coach to Jim Boeheim, the storied Hall of Famer whose signature still adorns the court inside the JMA Wireless Dome.
“Coach [Boeheim] let us be involved a lot,” Autry said of the change in role. “It wasn’t that much of a difference.”
Except for the obvious one.
“It’s just me being the head coach,” Autry says. “Which is a big difference.”
On a rather unremarkable November night in Syracuse, the storied Orange program begins a new era. It’s a sparse crowd, reflective of the Monday night non-conference game. Still, there are plenty of Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara jerseys to go along with the increasingly popular Judah Mintz No. 3 jerseys. The intrigue surrounds the program as fans are eager to get a glimpse of the new look Orange.
Autry’s dad and friends show up for the game, along with his wife Andrea. There were plenty of pregame texts as he entered the JMA Wireless Dome with his cell phone to his ear, making his way through Stadium Control and through the bowels of the familiar building.
After the team has goes through its warmup routine, the Syracuse players head into the locker room for the final time before tip at 6:44 p.m. Minutes later, out come the team followed by the assistant coaches. The Syracuse band then takes the cue, cuts the melody and the hype video begins. The Syracuse video operations team has put together an impressive Autry montage on the video display shown above the 300 section and the center-hung scoreboard. As Autry walks out of the tunnel and makes his entrance, DJ Khaled’s “I Got The Keys” plays from the speakers.
It’s a far cry from the Bruce Springsteen vocals that used to emit from the same speakers less than a year ago. Introduced as “Adrian ‘Red’ Autry” in front of an announced crowd of 19,130 (it was less than that), the coach who was born in Monroe, North Carolina and raised in Harlem, New York, makes his debut.
“It’s amazing,” Kansas transfer Kyle Cuffe said. “Coach Boeheim was the coach for the last 50 years here. That says a lot. This is Coach Autry’s first.”
The ball is eventually tipped and Syracuse starts hot. The style Autry wants to implement is apparent as the pace has picked up and the defense starts in man-to-man. Hometown product and Notre Dame transfer JJ Starling grabs a rebound and Autry ejects himself from his seat imploring Starling to run the break. It works early and Syracuse jumps out to a 23-point lead over New Hampshire.
But the Orange hit a dry spell midway through the first half. The pace slows, the defense breaks down and the ball starts to stick on offense. Turnovers occur and star player Mintz, who would go on to finish with 20 points, gets into foul trouble.
That carried over to the second half when Mintz picked up his fourth foul early. Autry had to blow the dust off the old Syracuse defense and adjust his strategy on the fly.
“Thank God for the 2-3 zone,” Autry joked.
Autry reverted to Boeheim’s trusted zone to give New Hampshire a different look and to protect Mintz with four fouls. It mostly worked. Mintz plays the rest of the game without fouling out.
On the other end, sophomore sharpshooter Justin Taylor stepped up in his third career start.
“He knocked some big shots down for us,” Autry said.
When Syracuse needed a bucket, Taylor hit important shots to stave off the Wildcat runs. He completed a four-point play after being fouled on a three late in the second half.
“He’s just a consistent player. He never gets too high, never gets too low. He’s someone that I can count on,” Autry declared.
Syracuse eventually closes out and Autry walks off the court with his first career victory.
“It’s big time,” Taylor began. “We’ve been working hard since last spring when he took over all through the summer and preseason. To get that first win for him is huge.”
And after the win, first-year assistant coach Brendan Straughn had some ideas. He’d disseminate his plan to the Syracuse team.
“Gotta dry off a little bit,” Adrian Autry said with a chuckle as he approached the podium in the post-game press conference.
And it wasn’t from the sweat.
His team showered him with water in the locker room just prior. Another sign that times have changed.
“He came in, gave his speech and then it was quiet for a little bit,” Taylor shared, “and we just threw water on him. Really happy time for him and more wins to come.”
“It was big just being able to be a part of it,” said Judah Mintz. “It’s special. He played here, he coached here for a while and to see him be a head coach as a Black man. It’s crazy for me. I’m proud of him. I’m glad to be under him as a player and I can’t wait to see what we can do this year.”
“Amazing to be able to start the new era,” Quadir Copeland added. “It’s fun. I’m glad to get his first win and start him off on the right foot. I’m just glad that we’re a group that can keep changing his career, just keep making it better.”
Autry noted his top assistant Gerry McNamara post-game along with Allen Griffin. He acknowledged their history together: “We’ve been together for a long time.”
As for the first career victory celebration, Autry would spend time with his family and get ready for Wednesday’s game against Canisius.
“Nothing special,” he said.
Sophomore guard Copeland, who finished with his first career double-double, said he made Autry happy for the day. But didn’t expect it to stretch into tomorrow.
What happens next is greeted with a little less fanfare.
“I gotta see coach tomorrow and watch film,” Copeland said.
It’s back to business.