The defending national champions had no idea what would hit them, or who. But that wasn't Connecticut's fault. Syracuse didn't know, either. That's because the Orange dominate by committee. This is a team that plays rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to be the hero.
With 6:26 to go last Saturday and Syracuse leading 63--61, would leading scorer Kris Joseph, a thick 6'7" jump shooter who already had 14 points, be the one to go on a tear? Or would it be junior Brandon Triche, the Orange's best three-point shooter? Or sophomore forward C.J. Fair, who nearly scraped his head against the Carrier Dome roof reeling in an alley-oop? Or sophomore center Fab Melo, the team's top NBA prospect, who had laughed as he hit one of three long-range jumpers? "It is fun," Melo would say later. "They give you space and think you're not going to make it—and you make it!"
No, no, no and no. On this day the stars would be senior point guard Scoop Jardine and sophomore sixth man Dion Waiters, who combined to score the next 18 points to turn the game into an eventual 85--67 blowout. Syracuse may be the country's second-ranked squad—at week's end the 25--1 Orange were listed only behind Kentucky—but at times it feels like the perfect team, an assortment of puzzle pieces that shouldn't fit so well together but somehow do.
Entering this season, Syracuse had every reason to fall apart. Nobody expected that Melo, who was 25 pounds overweight last year (and, despite being 7-feet, in over his head), would be a lock for the Big East's most improved player award. Waiters almost transferred at coach Jim Boeheim's suggestion. And most disturbing, the allegations of child molestation against 36-year assistant coach Bernie Fine, which led to his firing on Nov. 27, seemed as if they might bring the whole program down. (Fine has denied all allegations, and no charges have been filed against him.)
There is a heck of a story here if you dig deep enough. But the key to Syracuse basketball is not to look too deep. Just do what the coach does: Watch the games, one after another. The heartwarming stories and controversies and disputes and accolades all fade when the ball goes up, so why worry about them? As Boeheim says, when asked about the firestorm surrounding Fine, "I don't think it helped or hurt us. I just think we had a good team."
JIM BOEHEIM looks at himself as a basketball coach, not as a leader who happens to coach basketball.
This makes him an anomaly among his peers. The man Boeheim passed for third on the alltime wins list (he got his 880th victory against Georgetown on Feb. 8), Dean Smith, wrote a book called The Carolina Way: Leadership Lessons from a Life in Coaching, which easily could be confused with Mike Krzyzewski's Leading with the Heart: Coach K's Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life or Jim Calhoun's A Passion to Lead: Seven Leadership Secrets for Success in Business, Sports and Life. Boeheim would rather send six players onto the court than write one of those books. He figures your life is your business, and why would you model your business on his life? He doesn't even like telling his players how to live. What could he write a book about? His famed 2--3 zone? Passing out of the high post?
"The truth is: I like the players, but I like the game," Boeheim says. "I like to see our players mature and get better. I want them all to graduate. Scoop graduated. But I mean, I like the game. That's why I'm in it."
It's a shame, really, because several Orange players could provide a chapter for the book Boeheim won't write. Look at Joseph. He was averaging 14.3 points at week's end, he's a senior with NBA potential, but when he went scoreless in a win over Seton Hall on Dec. 28, he smiled because his team got the victory.
"He [acted] like he had 30 points, I swear," Jardine said.