Battle-tested squad comes up big, again
For two months, they had family feuds. They scuffled with each other and bloodied each other’s noses. Then they would pick themselves up.
And then for one week in early March they do it again in New York in a rite of spring known as the Big East tournament.
A year ago, Connecticut put together an incredible five wins in five days to win the tournament. The Huskies used it as a springboard to win the national championship in a season in which 11 Big East teams earned NCAA bids.
This year, nine Big East teams were invited to the Big Dance.
Last night at TD Garden, Syracuse - written off by many as the most likely No. 1 seed to be knocked out of the Sweet 16, and a team plagued by a series of incidents that would make most coaches retreat - followed the mantra that all Big East teams use this time of year: survive and advance.
In a stomach-churning, hold-your-breath battle, coach Jim Boeheim’s team survived to advance to Saturday’s regional final with a 64-63 win over Wisconsin.
Couple that effort - which was Boeheim’s first win over a Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament in seven tries - with Louisville’s win over No. 1-seeded Michigan State in the West Regional in Phoenix and you have some of the reasons why not only Boeheim, but embattled Big East commissioner John Marinatto, were smiling Thursday night.
And despite Ohio State’s win over Cincinnati and Marquette’s loss to Florida, the Big East still could have a big presence in New Orleans.
“March is Christmas time for us,’’ said Marinatto, who has been consumed for the past nine months with defections and expansion plans that have changed the configuration of the Big East to where it is hardly recognizable - either geographically or numerically.
Ironically, Syracuse, which will move to the Atlantic Coast Conference (probably in 2013 with Pittsburgh), could give the Big East a national championship as a going-away present.
Marinatto is quick to point out that 15 Big East teams have been to 46 Final Fours and that, when the new configuration of 18 teams kicks in, that total will increase to 50.
But what the Big East also has are coaches who have established credentials that are etched in granite.
UConn’s Jim Calhoun won his third national championship last year.
Thursday night’s win was Boeheim’s 890th in a Syracuse career that stretches 36 seasons. His numbers are mind-boggling.
A new coach starting next season would have to average almost 25 wins per season for 36 years to match Boeheim’s numbers since 1976.
Only Mike Krzyzewski (927) and Bobby Knight (902) have more career victories than Boeheim, who also has a staggering 34 20-win seasons, the most of any coach in Division 1.
“You can take three guys - Jimmy, Jim Calhoun, and Mike Krzyzewski - and probably Tom Izzo at Michigan State - and put them in a category that stands by itself,’’ said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who has known Boeheim for 37 years. “With all the changes, with all the pressures, you won’t find anything like the longevity and success at one school again. You won’t see their kind again. It’s just amazing.’’
What is amazing this season is the way Boeheim has stayed focused through a series of incidents, the latest being the suspension of 7-foot sophomore center Fab Melo just before the NCAA Tournament. Melo is a missing ingredient from a team with a glittering 34-2 record.
Boeheim’s attitude was simply that he would coach - and likely win with - the players he had.
That is what happened against a Wisconsin team that simply would not disappear into the warm spring night despite Syracuse’s many attempts to put them away.
After the game, Boeheim offered relief for his Orange and praise for the Badgers.
“This is one of the best games I’ve been involved with in a long time,’’ said Boeheim. “I think the best game anybody has ever played against us and didn’t beat us.’’
Boeheim, who won his only national championship in 2003 and has been to three Final Fours, conceded that this season, especially the past few weeks, has been far from a day at the golf course - which is where Boeheim can be found when he is not focusing on basketball.
“They’re never easy,’’ he said. “They’re hard. It’s part of it. We’ve had some tough games this year. We haven’t had a game like this where we played this well.’’
Syracuse will have to play as well Saturday to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans.
Perhaps it will have to play better.
And even if the Orange do all the things Boeheim wants, if they survive and advance, they might find another Big East playmate waiting for them.
As Marinatto said, March is Christmas time for the Big East.
But then again, April might be part of the holiday season as well.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at email@example.com.