Let’s go back to the start of the Syracuse University men’s basketball season in mid-November. What if we had told you back then that …
▪ The Orange would lose four non-conference games for just the second time in coach Jim Boeheim’s 39-year career.
▪ Junior center Dajuan Coleman would never fully recover from knee surgery and have to sit out the entire season.
▪ Starting power forward Chris McCullough would be lost for the season after tearing his ACL against Florida State Jan. 11.
▪ And, two months into the season, Boeheim would still not trust freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph at the end of close games, and he would get little or no production from reserves B.J. Johnson and Chinonso Obokoh.
You would have said the Orange is in big trouble. And you would be half right.
Heading into Tuesday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference game against Boston College at the Carrier Dome, the Orange had so far overcome those obstacles to post a 13-5 overall record and 4-1 mark in the ACC. While a 66-63 victory over Iowa on Nov. 21 in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden remains SU’s best win, the Orange did find a way to win close games against Louisiana Tech, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
But there remains a sky-is-falling feeling that this season could crumble at any time. After the Orange recorded what Boeheim called a “tremendous win” in overtime against Wake Forest Jan. 13, the team turned around and laid an egg in a 66-53 loss at Clemson this past Saturday that snapped SU’s seven-game winning streak.
“It’s hard to get wins in this league,” Boeheim said after the Wake Forest game. “We’ve had two or three that could have easily gone the other way and we got them. We have to keep plugging away and getting a little better. We’ll see what happens.”
What we know is definitely going to happen is that the Orange schedule is going to get significantly more difficult very soon. Following home games against Boston College (8-8, 0-4) and Miami (12-5, 2-2) this week, the Orange will close its ACC season with a stretch of 11 games that includes two against No. 4 Duke and one each against No. 2 Virginia, No. 6 Louisville, No. 12 Notre Dame and No. 15 North Carolina, plus Pittsburgh twice and North Carolina State, which recently upset Duke.
Then there’s that NCAA hammer that’s hanging over SU’s head. Back in late October, the university released a statement announcing the conclusion of an NCAA investigation into probable violations by the athletic department. The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions was expected to announce its findings in a public report in 30 to 60 days, which means it’s about three weeks overdue.
The investigation centered on men’s basketball violations that were self-reported by the university. Self-reporting usually counts for something, but the time span covered by the investigation (reportedly since the early 2000s) indicates that the basketball program could face “lack of institutional control” penalties. Then again, it’s the NCAA, and you never know what you’re going to get with an organization that makes up its rules as it goes along.
In the meantime, the recommendation for SU fans that have been spoiled by the team’s recent success is to savor every victory this season, no matter how it’s accomplished, and keep your fingers crossed about the NCAA investigation. The Orange is about to become the underdog in many of its remaining games, so this season has become all about finding a way to survive.
“Everyone is going to play and just work harder,” said SU center Rakeem Christmas, the team’s most valuable player. “We will all go out and play our game and we will be fine. Everyone is going to step up, and just go out and do what we do. We will do well.”
Fact Fact: Coach Jim Boeheim called center Rakeem Christmas (18.3 points, 9.0 rebounds per game) “probably the best center in the country” and was upset when the mid-season Wooden Award nominees were announced and Christmas wasn’t on the list. The award goes to college basketball’s best player.