My relationship with the Orangemen traces back to the late 1990s. I suffered through the many letdowns and dry spells of college basketball in New York. I remember Damone Brown and Etan Thomas and Preston Shumpert and Jason Hart. In fact, the first Syracuse tournament game that broke my heart was in 2000 – when Mateen Cleaves and Mo Peterson thoroughly decimated the Orange.
Melo’s arrival was anchored by guard Gerry McNamara and fit-for-zone-defense sophomore forward Hakim Warrick. That year, the Orange had a rotation of players that could accomplish a deep run in March. And that they did. Playing in the Big East gave Syracuse the advantage every year because it wasn’t as strong of a conference.
Moving to the ACC was one of the best and worst things that could have happened for Syracuse basketball. Despite not being able to consistently dominate, the Orange have created an identity characterized as slow and methodical. They aren’t going to wow you with a lot of flash or deep threes. They are, however, solid at wearing teams down. According to the selection committee, that’s exactly how they fell into the tournament; becoming one of the most surprising Cinderellas the NCAA has had in a few years.
The ACC is the best conference in NCAA basketball. It’s not even close. Although Syracuse struggled with their Hall of Fame coach being suspended for the first 9 games, the freshmen starters showed the ability to play up to most of their opponents. Freshman Tyler Lydon was critical in stretching the floor. Freshman guard Malachi Richardson surprised me with his confidence in putting the ball on the floor. But it’s been the play of the graduate students, Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, that have navigated this magical run to the Final 4.
Trevor Cooney draws a lot of comparisons to Gerry McNamara. Probably because they’re both white guards. To me, that’s where the comparison ends. McNamara was a more prolific passer and better defender. In prior seasons, Cooney often found himself on and off the floor based on his shooting stroke for the night. In his final year as the starting PG, he’s added the skill of driving to the rim. He’s also improved his defense, making a play versus Gonzaga that’ll likely end up being one of the biggest of his career. Cooney has done a lot of razzle-dazzle in these last two weeks. Him being aggressive inside the arc has become a crucial detail in the Orange’s run.
North Carolina is one of the deepest benches in the nation. Syracuse’s first game against the Tarheels – the same game Coach Boeheim returned from serving his suspension- was textbook Trevor Cooney. He was pulling up from all over the court. Unfortunately for Syracuse, their lack of ball movement and turnovers translated into a lot of easy transition points for North Carolina.
Their 2nd meeting was far more chippier. The Orange were able to run Marcus Paige off the three-point line while also forcing Brice Johnson to penetrate. Even though Syracuse played behind the entire game, they were able to go on runs and make some stops to try and slow Carolina down.
Whether you believe they deserve to be in or not, you cannot argue against the fact that when the Orange goes on a run, they’ll have their opponents scrambling to keep a lead.
Seeing my two favorite college teams square off in a Final 4 isn’t something I thought I’d ever see. I would love for Syracuse make it to the championship. Everybody counted them out. They catch a lot of flack because they aren’t able to recruit the prized five-star recruits. So to see them win would be a giant middle finger to the NCAA and the naysayers.
What will it take for Syracuse to have a story book ending? Based on previous meetings vs. Carolina, it’ll come down to the three things.
- Tyler Roberson staying out of foul trouble. Syracuse doesn’t have a backup that is as athletic or as long as Roberson. They’re going to need his offensive rebounding to create second chance opportunities.
- Using the clock to their advantage. Towards the end of the Virginia game, I wanted to throw my phone when I saw Michael Gbinije jack up a long 3 instead of taking advantage of a fresh clock. If Roberson is able to bully Carolina for boards, Syracuse is going to need every one of those seconds to reset the offense.
- Trevor Cooney going full Trevor Cooney. A few years ago this would mean shooting 8 for 20. Not now. As long as Cooney defends Marcus Paige tight and settles for driving to the hole, he’ll be able to be more effective managing the offense.