We are coming off perhaps the most bizarre basketball season in Syracuse history. The year was over-shadowed by the Bernie Fine situation, (you can’t really call it a case because nobody got prosecuted for anything). Searching for a companion piece to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, ESPN unearthed an old allegation vs. Jim Boeheim’s’ long-time right hand man and the resulting publicity caused his firing. Boeheim’s initial defense of his friend caused a well-publicized law suit. A tape of a phone conversation between Fine’s wife and one of the accusers was played on the NBC Nightly News. When the dust settled, Boeheim was still the coach, Fine was living in Florida and no legal action was pending against anybody. Despite these distraction, the SU basketball season had the greatest regular season in their history, going 30-1 overall and 17-1 in the Big East, the toughest conference in the country, losing only one game when their starting center and key to their defense was suspended for unspecified reasons believed to be related to his academic performance. Since academic suspensions are usually related to what happened in the previous semester, SU fans presumed that Fab Melo would be with the team the rest of the season after the suspension was lifted, (Boeheim said he had to complete something he hadn’t finished and that that was taken care of). Instead he was again suspended just as the NCAA tournament was about to start. The team still managed to fight their way to the “Elite 8” where they lost to Ohio State and a group of referees that sent the Buckeyes to the line 42 times and blew their whistle so many times, (48 fouls called) that a fast breaking team like SU was never allowed to get going. All season long Kentucky and Syracuse had traded the #1 spot in the polls and a confrontation in the finals seemed inevitable. But due to circumstances we still don’t quite understand, it never came off. The Wildcats went on to win the national title and looked impressive in doing so. But they weren’t overwhelming- their Final Four wins were both by 8 points. I can’t claim we would have beaten them if we were full strength would I would very much have liked to have found out. Instead we had to be satisfied with a Big East regular season title and the best record in SU history: 34-3, the only Syracuse team to have won as many as 30 more games than they lost. The year we did win the national title- all of a sudden that‘s a decade ago- we were 30-5. We’ve had five teams in our history that have won 30+ games, two in the last three years. Both times we rose to the #1 ranking. Both times we lost our center just as the Big Dance was starting, (Arinze Onuaku got injured in the 2010 Big East tournament). We’ll always wonder if those teams could have gone all the way. This year we are wondering if this SU team could go all the way, which is strange because we lost Melo for good and he was the center piece to our defense. He’s a Celtic now. We lost Kris Joseph, our leading scorer, who had been co-favorite for Big Eats player of the year before the season. He’s also a Celtic. We lost Dion Waiters, our best offensive player who came off the bench to be our second leading scorer even though he played 8 minutes a game less than Joseph. He’s now a Cleveland Cavalier and looking like a candidate for rookie of the years in the NBA. Then we lost our point guard, Scoop Jardine, who might have gotten a shot with an NBA team if he hadn’t hurt a leg just before the draft. At least he’s dating Michael Jordan’s daughter, (yes that Michael Jordan, not the one in the commercial). Melo came as a freshman, overweight and out of shape and could only play a few minutes of at a time, both because of exhaustion and because he kept getting called for fouls. He’s grown up playing soccer but grew to 7 feet, 270 and moved to America to become a basketball player. He’d only been playing organized basketball for three years for a small school in Florida and had a lot to learn. He also had a lot to learn off the court, having reported trouble with the language and his studies and also with his relationship with a girlfriend. He got into trouble, (and hurt himself), ripping off the windshield wiper of her car in an argument, man achievement that is physically impressive but not otherwise. He looked like he might be a memorable flop but came back slimmed down to about 250 for this sophomore year. He was much more mobile and was learning so much about how to play the game it was like watching a flower bloom in time-lapse photography. He seemed to improve with each game. He became the centerpiece to the whole SU defense, blocking shots, using his size to intimidate many more and block the lane. Many players drove into the lane and wound up almost in the fetal position with the ball, cowering under Fab‘s huge torso and outstretched arms. I’m not a fan of a center taking charges, (it takes him out of the play if he doesn‘t get the call), but Fab was good at it, “flopping” at just the right time and consistently getting those calls. His offensive game showed signs of developing as the season progressed and I feel that if he’d been able to come back for a third year we would have seen that side of his game blossom. But it wasn’t to be. He was suspended at the end of the first semester for reason the University wouldn’t specify and missed two games, one of which was out only regular season loss at Notre Dame. Then he was reinstated and we went on another winning streak. We finally lost a game with Melo in the line-up when Cincinnati went off from three point range in the Big East Tournament. Then, mysteriously, he was suspended again and never came back. Dion Waiters was recruited by SU when he was only 15 years old and was considered one of the best guard prospects in the country. He had a disappointing freshman year, during which he seemed unwilling to use his superior speed and jumping ability and instead just floated around the perimeter jacking up three pointers. He was stuck behind a couple of veteran guards, Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche and didn’t get along with the coach very well. There was speculation he was dealing with some sort of an injury. He seemed to have made up his mind to leave and even Jim Boeheim public ally speculated that he wouldn’t be on the next year’s team. But like Fab Melo, he came back and did so with a vengeance. Now he was the aggressive, break-down-the-defense and drive-to-the-basket guard we’d heard about. He could also punctuate the game with the occasional three pointer. He could also run the floor on the break and finish above the rim. He was also an aggressive defender and clearly the most NBA-ready player on the team. He was still behind Jardine and Triche in the starting line-up but in reality it was a triumvirate and he accepted that role, actually playing more minutes than Triche and leading the team in points per 40 minutes with 21.0, compared to the nominal scoring leader, Kris Joseph, who averaged only 16.6 but who played 301 more minutes. He was arguably more effective coming off the bench than starting because of the instant offense and higher energy level he provided, the ideal 6th man. He also provided a service to this year’s team by advising a frustrated Michael Carter-Williams, who was seeing limited minutes behind Jardine, Triche and Waiters, to stick it out and come back when MCW expressed a desire to leave. But Waiters, who had two years left, felt it was time to play for pay and left with everyone‘s blessing. He‘s now starting for the Cleveland Cavaliers, (something he couldn‘t do for the Syracuse Orangemen), and averaging 14.5ppg opposite Kyrie Irving. Kris Joseph was a fine college forward with all-around skills who just wasn’t great at anything. He could shot from outside. He could handle the ball and pass it. He could rebound. He could play defense when he put his mind to it. He just wasn’t real good at any of those things. He also had a series of nagging injuries and his intensity and concentration seemed to waiver. He was popular and well spoken, (he had a radio show with Scoop Jardine), and led the team in scoring. He just never became the great player some people though the was going to be. Pre-season he was a co-favorite to be Big East player of the year and he just wasn’t that type of player. Nonetheless in a talented line-up he was an important cog in the machine. Somewhat surprisingly, he was drafted by the Celtics and performed well in their summer league and camp. He’s now been sent to the developmental league along with teammate Fab Melo. The question is: do they have the work ethic to make it in the NBA? I think Fab has the body and talent. I’m less confident about Kris. Scoop Jardine came in with Jonny Flynn. People said that he would be give Flynn a run for the point guard position. Many scoffed at that. Flynn was great as a freshman and won the position while Jardine had trouble with an injury and an uncle that showed up, getting in some trouble. The injury was a stress fracture in his left leg, which forced him to sit out a year while Flynn became a nationally known star guard for Syracuse and #6 overall pick in the NBA. Jardine finally emerged the next year, sharing the point guard spot with Triche, (he came off the bench as Waiters did last year), and then being the starter next to Triche the next two years. SU’s three year record with him in the backcourt was 91-16. That’s 30 wins a year. But like Ryan Nassib on the football team, he never seemed to get the credit he deserved for his contributions to the team and was the recipient of constant criticism. Every time he made a bad shot or turnover, that’s all anyone seemed to want to talk about. He had more than a few of both and they often seemed to come at exactly the wrong time. But his positive contributions certainly outweighed the negatives or we couldn’t have won all those games. In those three years, Scoop, (real name “Antonio”), per 40 minutes, he averaged 15 points, 8 assists, 2 steals and 4 turnovers a game. If Michael Carter-Williams does that well this year he’ll be heaped with praise for what a great young talent he is.