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Syracuse men’s basketball: three takeaways from the 2003 NCAA Championship win versus Kansas

Revisiting the ‘03 championship from 20 years ago today.

Jim Boeheim gives instructions in the huddle Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images

20 years ago on this day, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team defeated the Kansas Jayhawks 81-78 in the 2003 NCAA Championship.

The victory marked the first (and only time) the Orange won the NCAA men’s title, turning the phrase third time’s the charm after the program suffered heartbreaking championship losses in 1987 and 1996.

In the Orange’s regular season finale earlier this season, many of the former players from the 2002-03 roster returned to campus in a weekend of celebration, commemoration, and recognition of an iconic year for the men’s program.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Syracuse’s ‘03 championship win, I sat through and re-watched the entire Syracuse versus Kansas game. Here are some of my biggest takeaways from the Orange’s win over the Jayhawks:

What would have happened had Syracuse lost (again)?

By all accounts, Kansas was a 5-point to 5.5-point favorite to beat Syracuse, depending on which historic sports book you look at. Factor in the Orange’s shortfalls in the championship games in 1987 and 1996, and one has to wonder how the program under Boeheim would’ve been viewed. As some of the TNIAAM staff (myself included) said in our weekend post, this win elevated the ‘Cuse program to a higher tier.

In hindsight, the win also kicked off a successful, decade-plus run of incredible success under Boeheim featuring some iconic teams from the mid-to-late 2000s and the early-2010s. With that said, a loss probably means the Orange get put into the mainstream Gonzaga-like conversation: a great regular-season team that ultimately couldn’t get over the hump.

Again, also consider how much of an underdog this Syracuse team was from start to finish. The Orange were unranked in the first 12 AP Polls, never reaching higher than 11th during the ‘03 season. But then, Syracuse caught fire after the Big East Tournament with wins over #23 Oklahoma State, Auburn, #3 Oklahoma, and #5 Texas before closing things out against #6 Kansas.

Translation: thank goodness Syracuse won.

‘Melo was the college superstar of his time.

In a game that featured two Kansas seniors (Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison) under the championship spotlight, it was Carmelo Anthony (30 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists in the ‘03 title game) who stole the show. Given we still hadn’t reached the peak of “one-and-done” NCAA basketball, Anthony paved the way for Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, and every other freshman star who shined for that one magical season in college before jumping ship to the pros.

How effective the 2-3 zone is with the right personnel.

It’s hard to believe how much defensive talent Syracuse possessed in the ‘03 roster. Hakim Warrick was the ultimate versatile, two-way wing that could guard practically anybody and fit perfectly in Boeheim’s zone defense. The guard collection of Gerry McNamara, Kueth Duany, Bille Edelin, and Josh Pace were all scrappy, hard-nosed defenders who rarely made mistakes and forced opponents into countless turnovers. Craig Forth was the bruising, old-school center every college team still needs nowadays. Even ‘Melo (1.7 steals per game in 2002-2003) provided defensive value even as he slipped as an individual defender in the NBA.

The other thing going for Syracuse in ‘03: the outside shot wasn’t analytically known to be an offensive weapon as it is now. The Orange faced a Kansas team in which Hinrich was the only reliable three-point bomber. Since then, the shift to a spaced-out offense has made playing zone tricky unless you have the right personnel. In 2002-2003, Kansas was 139th in three-point attempts (546 total in 38 games, or around 14.4 per game). In 2021-2022, that same rate would rank 325th in the NCAA. The game has astronomically changed with more spacing and a better understanding of the analytics.

(Honorable mention takeaways: the “Boeheim versus Roy Williams” coaching narrative, McNamara’s six first-half threes versus Kansas, ‘Melo playing through a clearly-painful back injury, young(ish) Boeheim, Syracuse randomly losing its 2003 season-opener to John Calipari and Memphis for reasons unknown to this day, and Warrick’s block coming off the late missed free throws)


Now it’s your turn: what are some of your favorite memories from the ‘03 title team?

Syracuse v Georgetown Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images