On Basketball

While in the past, I've written a bunch about basketball here, I've been unusually silent on the subject this year, confining my commentary to the occasional Links Dump item from Grantland and other sites. This isn't because the past season was not noteworthy-- indeed, it was a rather eventful year for Syracuse basketball, with the best record in school history, but a good deal of turmoil off the court. It's just that I've been too busy to watch basketball, let alone blog about it. I did manage to catch all or part of several Syracuse games, though not as many as I would've liked, because most of them took place during SteelyKid's bedtime routine.

It would be a shame to let the season pass completely without comment, though, so here are a few scattered Syracuse-centric comments, below the fold for the sake of those who don't want to read about sports:

-- On the good side, the team finished 34-3, with two of their three losses coming without seven-foot knucklehead Fab Melo, who was ineligible for vague reasons probably involving academics. Jim Boeheim moved into third place on the all-time coaching victories list, behind only Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight. Assuming he wins the usual number of games next year, he should easily pass Knight, and then it's just him and Krzyzewski. I don't think anyone at ESPN knows what to make of this-- all the stories about it that I've seen have a vague undertone of "Jim Boeheim? Really?"

-- On the bad side, Boeheim must think he's cursed. This is twice in the last five years that he's had a great team during the regular season, one that had a chance to contend for the title, only to lose his center late in the season, and miss out. A few years ago, it was Arinze Onuaku blowing out his knee, and this year it was Melo. It really sucks to see that sort of thing.

-- Then again, it's hard to say what this team would've done, because they were really strange all year long. They racked up a fantastic record basically by being really deep-- Boeheim had 10 guys who could play major minutes at a lot of other schools, so when the starters were a bit off, which happened a lot, he could just shuffle other people in and out until he found one of the 252 possible combinations of those 10 guys that worked. Sometimes that would take a while, though, and against a really good opponent, it's not clear they'd win. They squeaked out some tough games against opponents who weren't all that good, after all.

-- The other weird thing about this team was that none of the individual players ever looked all that great. Kris Joseph came in as the presumptive "go-to guy," but he didn't hit a jump shot after Velntine's Day. Dion Waiters had some great individual performances, but it also seemed like he, Brandon Triche, and Scoop Jardine were sharing one brain between the three of them-- whenever one of them would look great, the other two looked terrible.

-- Off the court, there were two scandals, one of them involving failed drug tests by players who are no longer on the team, who should've been suspended for some games, but weren't. This apparently involved recreational drugs, which almost certainly means marijuana, and I think every Syracuse fan from the last ten years immediately thought "Eric Devedorf." Followed by "Paul Harris."

-- And there's the whole Bernie Fine sexual abuse thing, which I can't not mention, but I can't think of anything useful to say about. It started out lurid and bizarre, and got weirder, and has now more or less dropped off the radar. It's not clear whether that means there's actually nothing to the allegations, or just that doing actual responsible law enforcement work takes a lot longer than grandstanding prosecution-by-tabloid. The whole thing is just kind of depressing, really.

-- In other faintly depressing news, college football continues to make everything else suck, meaning that Syracuse will be leaving the Big East for the ACC. Which means my two favorite teams (Maryland and Syracuse) will now play against each other every year. Bleagh. The move is driven purely by the fat tv contracts available for college football, and will break up one of the best basketball leagues in history. While it would technically be possible for Syracuse to continue to play some of its historical rivals in non-conference games, given that both Jim Boeheim and John Thompson would schedule only Division II teams in November and December if they thought they could get away with it, the odds of this ever happening will be slim.

And that's really sad, because Syracuse-Georgetown more or less defined college basketball for me back in the 1980's. Seeing that evaporate just makes me feel old.

-- As for the rest of the college basketball universe, the NCAA tournament came to an end last night with Kentucky solidly defeating Kansas in the title game. I watched essentially none of this-- I was upstairs reading stories to SteelyKid and fielding her bizarre requests for things until 10:30, at which point the first half was over, and the combination of a not particularly competitive game plus Jim Nantz plus CBS's interminable commercial breaks was just not that appealing to me. I watched about four minutes of game action, then went to sleep.

In a lot of ways, this was another great year for might've-beens in the tournament. Had either Syracuse or North Carolina been at full strength, we might've gotten some really epic games. But Fab Melo is a knucklehead, and Kendall Marshall broke his wrist, and so we ended up with less than we might've had. It's not clear to me that either of those teams would've been able to beat Kentucky, but either of those games would've been more interesting, at least to me.

And while I could probably say more, I just got a call from SteelyKid's day care to say that she's sick, so I have to go deal with that instead. Joy.

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Any comment, aside from Boeheim knowing he can fill the Carrier Dome, about the fact that Syracuse only played one away game before Jan. 1st, and only 10 away games (out of 32) in the regular season?

My personal feeling is that no team should get a high national ranking until they have demonstrated an ability to win away games.

Not really. That's pretty much par for the course for Boeheim-- he doesn't like to leave the state before the conference season starts. They did have two neutral site games (to the extent that MSG counts as a neutral site) in November, which brings the total of non-home-games to 12/32, which is a little better.

To take a not-at-all random example of another team, eventual national champion Kentucky played a total of 13 non-home games, four of those at neutral sites. Tournament runner-up Kansas played 14, four at neutral sites. Michigan State, widely lauded for their tough schedule played 12, two at neutral sites.

Syracuse is on the low side, but not ridiculously so.

1) In this case, the problem with his team was that he didn't have STUDENT-athletes, or, perhaps, find a way to keep them all eligible for the only 1 1/2 semesters of college they will ever see.

2) Boeheim does deserve credit, and I have no idea why the big CBS/ESPN sports media folks dislike him so much. Because he doesn't field a professional enough team?

3) Any over-under on whether Calipari has actually won his first NCAA championship? Was he hinting in one interview that a player got career insurance via a loan that might have been a bit generous in its terms just to taunt the NCAA?

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 03 Apr 2012 #permalink

1) In this case, the problem with his team was that he didn't have STUDENT-athletes, or, perhaps, find a way to keep them all eligible for the only 1 1/2 semesters of college they will ever see.

Melo's a sophomore, so these were his third and fourth semesters. And he's apparently the only one with a problem.

2) Boeheim does deserve credit, and I have no idea why the big CBS/ESPN sports media folks dislike him so much. Because he doesn't field a professional enough team?

Boeheim has three knocks against him:

1) He has a reputation of loading up his schedule with weak non-conference games, and not playing outside the state of New York before January, so people see his win total as "padded" in some sense.

2) He primarily plays a 2-3 zone defense, which is seen as unmanly. A zone press is OK, because it's aggressive, but the 2-3 offends the sensibilities of those more inclined toward the NBA style.

3) He's not naturally slick on tv. He can be fairly charming in the right circumstances-- he's reliably entertaining when he goes on Pardon the Interruption, for example, because he's friends with Wilbon and Kornheiser, and comfortable with them. If some random reporter asks him a question he thinks is stupid, though, he doesn't do a very good job of hiding his irritation. And if you really bug him about something, he'll eventually go off and tell you what he really thinks, which often backfires (see his early comment on the Bernie Fine business for a particularly bad example).

He's also not ambitious, in that he's not trying to move up. He never flirts with the NBA, the last time he even thought briefly about leaving Syracuse was apparently in the mid 80's, and he'd be a bad fit for a tv job. So he doesn't have any need to do the sort of schmoozing that some other coaches do. So he does more or less the minimum media relations stuff expected of somebody in his position, and that's it. ESPN doesn't have all that much that he needs or wants, so he doesn't go out of his way to cultivate them. And as a result, they end up not being all that excited about him.

3) Any over-under on whether Calipari has actually won his first NCAA championship?

Calipari's now in the Tarkanian Zone, where he's pissed off the NCAA enough times that if they can find anything at all to hang on him, they will. It would surprise me a little if they actually vacated a title, though. I don't think it's very likely that they'll end up doing anything to this team, in the end.