He has been Jim Boeheim’s son long enough to know better, but Buddy Boeheim went ahead and checked the internet at one of the lower points of Syracuse basketball’s 2020-21 season. And, of course it was aggravating. Probably, it was ugly, but he shared with us only the annoying stuff.
“If I’m going to be honest, after a couple games, the Georgia Tech game, I saw a lot of stuff on Twitter talking about him, just crazy stuff,” Buddy told reporters in a zoom call Sunday evening. “How he’s been not doing well the last 10 years.
“Do you know how many people would dream about going to two Sweet 16s, two Final Fours and an Elite Eight? In 10 years, I think that’s pretty good. He continues to do it. He’s one of the best coaches in all of sports. There’s no doubt about it.”
Buddy spoke on the occasion of Syracuse’s advancement to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, his first but the 20th in his father’s enduring career. The Orange earned their second consecutive March Madness upset, 75-72 over No. 3 seed West Virginia, and advanced to the Midwest Region semifinals. Buddy played a massive role in the victory, scoring 25 points and hitting 6 of 13 from 3-point range. Over the course of the past four games — two essential to the Orange being selected for the tournament, and the two that advanced them to next weekend — he has averaged 28.3 points.
“I can’t describe it. It’s something I dreamed about my whole life,” Buddy said afterward. “To win two games, doubted in both, the underdog . . . this means everything. If you were to ask me a month or two months ago where we would be, I don’t think I would say Sweet 16, that’s for sure. This team just never gave up.”
Buddy knows his father’s history, so even he doubted a little, right?
This has been the story of Jim Boeheim’s waning years as Syracuse coach. However long he continues, he surely is nearer to the end of his career than the beginning. And it has been less glorious in the past eight seasons, after the Orange exited the Big East Conference for the ACC.
Not since the first season in the ACC have they earned a top-four NCAA seed. They were a No. 10 in 2016, an 11 in 2018 and 11 again this year. And yet that seems almost to empower Syracuse basketball. They enter the tournament and even accomplished, championship-level teams wither upon confronting Boeheim’s unique 2-3 zone defense. In 2016, the Orange scrambled to a Final Four appearance. In 2018, it was a hard-earned Sweet 16 finish. This time, we do not know where it will end. But it didn’t end against the Mountaineers.
“I think our defense helps us a little bit,” Jim Boeheim said. “It’s different. People don’t see it. So it’s a little adjustment. But our offense has been really good. We’re playing two really good defensive teams, and we’re shooting over 50 percent.”
Not to take anything away from the achievement, but West Virginia is not a good defensive team. It ranks just 66th in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. The Mountaineers needed to excel at the offensive end to flourish, and Boeheim’s zone took care of that.
West Virginia shot 37 percent from the field. The attack was so dysfunctional, the Mountaineers converted only 34.1 percent from inside the 3-point arc.
The Boeheim zone has developed a habit of rendering exceptional players superfluous in the most crucial games. In 2018, Michigan State was 30-4 and regular-season champion of the Big Ten and earned a No. 3 seed. Freshman Jaren Jackson, a versatile 6-11 forward, was just three months from being the third player selected in the NBA Draft.
Matched against the Orange in a second-round game Spartans coach Tom Izzo chose to use senior Ben Carter, who was averaging less than a point a game, for 23 minutes. Carter scored two points, grabbed two rebounds and passed for two assists. Jackson played only 15 minutes in what became the last game of his college career, missing every shot he took from the field.
On Sunday evening, it was West Virginia big man Derek Culver who was disappeared. An All-Big 12 first-team selection, he played only 21 minutes against the Orange. That was long enough to shoot 2 of 10 from the field, but his irrelevance and ineffectiveness were glaring signs that Syracuse’s approach was working brilliantly. He was replaced for much of the second half by Gabe Osabuohien
Boeheim said getting Culver out of the game was a problem for Syracuse, because the Mountaineers were better with his substitute. This was true, but removing Culver meant the Mountaineers no longer were the Mountaineers. This is how the Syracuse zone works, always has. It not only makes you less than yourself, it makes you someone else.
There was a time in this season when it seemed unlikely the Orange would reach the NCAA Tournament. When they were 13-8 at the end of February following consecutive losses to Duke and Georgia Tech, their opportunity to reach the tournament seemed meager.
As they earned home wins over North Carolina and Clemson, both NCAA Tournament teams, they remained alive. It seemed they would have to do something exciting in the ACC Tournament to earn an NCAA bid, but all that happened was a win over a middling N.C. State team and a loss at the buzzer to league champion Virginia. That was enough, though, because so many others in the hunt for the last few bids took steps backward with damaging defeats.
“We were pretty bad for quite a while this year. We were getting beat 25 points. We weren’t getting beat 10. At Clemson and Pittsburgh and Virginia . . . we got killed,” Jim Boeheim said. “And they just kept going, kept coming to practice, kept trying to get better.
“And then we got a little better, and at the end, we were playing really good basketball. But it’s hard. You can be playing good basketball at the end of the year, but taking it into the tournament is not always easy. There are some teams that were playing really well at the end of the year that are not in this tournament anymore. It’s hard to win in this tournament.”
What Boeheim finds not difficult at all is ignoring those critical of his coaching. If he does not hear from his athletic director or president over the recent regular-season decline — and he assures everyone he has not — then he will continue operating more or less as he has since 1976.
“I don’t hear it because it’s from people who are inconsequential,” he said to a student reporter. “I’m sure you go to Syracuse, right? You know what that means? All that stuff on the internet — not once sentence on the internet matters.
“If you’re a coach at Syracuse for 45 years — everybody has an opinion about what we should or shouldn’t do, or that we should be better or not. Maybe the next coach will be better. I’ll be happy to see that. But I do not worry about what anyone says.
“I learned it a long time ago. My guidance counselor in eighth grade told me, ‘Jim, you’re not going to please everybody.’ He must have known I was going to be a coach.”