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Orange Crushed
Alexander Wolff
April 14, 2003
The hot-shooting Orangemen of Syracuse held off a late charge by Kansas to win the national title
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April 14, 2003

Orange Crushed

The hot-shooting Orangemen of Syracuse held off a late charge by Kansas to win the national title

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Boeheim remains friendly with his first wife, Elaine, and their adopted daughter, Elizabeth, 17, who live in Syracuse not far from Jim and Juli and their three kids, Jimmy, 4, and three-year-old twins Jamie (a girl) and Jack. Nearly every day the two boys push aside the dining-room furniture for a hoops game of their own devising, Starting Lineup, in which one plays for Syracuse and the other for some NBA team. Their 58-year-old dad may play a little defense or even cheer one of the boys' moves. But he's never a coach. "I'm always the coach at home," says Juli, a remark that's worth reading at more than one level.

A year ago Boeheim underwent treatment for prostate cancer, the disease that had taken his father's life, but long before that he was involved in the Coaches vs. Cancer charity. It's a cause that fits perfectly with Juli's Bluegrass hostessing skills, and together the Boeheims help stage the black-tie Basket Ball, an annual gala that accounts for Syracuse's easily leading all schools in raising funds for that organization. Only a few weeks ago he and the team taped a promotional spot for this year's event, which is set for April 26 and will feature the Temptations. Boeheim opens the promo with a spiel, then adds some Motown choreography. His players, unprepared for a Temps-style spin move, dissolved into such hysterics that the director couldn't use the take, and this upset Boeheim, who insists that his best move wound up on the cutting-room floor. "I used to tell him that there'd be no name on his tombstone, just a caricature of him with his glasses hanging on his nose," says Gavitt, mimicking the Boeheimian sourpuss expression with arms imploringly outstretched.

The current Orange players, of course, know only one Boeheim, and it's not the misanthrope of Big Mondays past. "I heard he used to throw chairs in the locker room," says Forth. "But he hasn't thrown one since I got here. And when he does get on you, it gets you motivated. You want to win for him—sometimes just to prove him wrong, but sometimes just to make him happy."

The team made him happiest with how it played the 2-3 zone, which is nothing like that Mickey Mouse setup you'll recall from CYO days. Today Syracuse looks for long-armed, long-bodied players with quickness and skills—such as 6'8" sophomore forward Hakim Warrick—and those physiques lend themselves to an effective 2-3.

In the East Regional final the 2-3 so flummoxed Oklahoma that the Sooners had more turnovers (19) than baskets (18). In last Saturday's 95-84 semifinal defeat of Texas, the top of the zone dared T.J. Ford to shoot, and when the Longhorns' point guard penetrated, the back line cheated forward enough to keep him from probing deep into the lane. "I played a lot of zone in high school, but there's no zone like this," says Warrick, who made the crucial block of Michael Lee's last-second three-point attempt in Monday's final. "You'd never think there's this much to it. It's like a 400-level class."

Because zones are so rare these days, most teams don't have highly refined offenses to run against them. "You have to make shots against a zone," says Gavitt. "And to get good shots, you have to pass the ball with sonic imagination. Kids today can do just about everything better than in the old days except passing. So if you throw a zone out there and it's active and working, a lot of teams can't make you pay."

Moreover, the zone may surrender shots, but often in unaccustomed places, like the midrange. And while so many teams avoid playing the 2-3 for fear of giving up the three-point shot, Syracuse will sometimes extend on the wings, inviting opponents to prove that they can consistently get the ball in the foul circle and sink that simpler, but less damaging, two-point shot or make a high-low pass for a layup.

Yet even his great tactical creation has brought Boeheim as much grief as praise. "I'm still doing the same things," he says. "We just have better players this year. It's funny: If we lose, it's always that we shouldn't be playing the zone. You lose with a man-to-man, it's somehow better."

The Orange sometimes even traps out of its zone, nowhere more effectively than in the "short corner," the horse latitudes where the foul lane meets the baseline. Opponents who pick up their dribble there may find themselves looking beseechingly at a pom-pom girl, the only friendly face they can find. Eventually, opposing players get what Duany calls "the bug-eyed look...like they're lost and confused."

That described Syracuse a year ago, when discipline problems and dissension tore the team apart. Boeheim pronounced it his most difficult season as a coach, quite apart from his bout with cancer. The departure of three players created room for a scorer and a floor leader, roles that Anthony and McNamara, respectively, have assumed. Given their transforming influence on the team, those two aren't freshmen so much as refreshmen. "I've never seen Jim have so much fun with a team," says Juli. "Last year the phone would ring, and you'd know it wasn't good. This year those calls never came."

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