Orange Watch: Final Four trips came out of nowhere

As most Orange hoops fans got their first glimpse of Jim Boeheim’s 36th edition this past Tuesday night in a 30-point exhibition game win over Div. II Cal-State Los Angeles, the buzz all fall has been about the vast amount of talent on hand that has the ability to propel the ‘Cuse to its fifth Final Four in school history.

For a program that’s only advanced to the Elite Eight three times since 1989, that’s saying a lot, especially in a tournament era of seeded teams playing in the “First Four” and the fact that teams can meet a well-known conference rival in the bracketing as soon as the round of 32, now known as the third round of the tournament.

One point’s for sure, the ‘Cuse isn’t going to be sneaking up on anyone if they advance to New Orleans next March 31, unlike the other trips to the sport’s biggest stage.

1975-The NCAA Tournament was just starting to get big, having gone to a primetime Monday night championship game only two seasons prior.

But when heavyweights UCLA, Kentucky and Louisville were joined in San Diego not by fellow heavyweight North Carolina, but instead a scrappy bunch of “goof-off’s” as self-described by guard Jim Lee the day before the national semi-finals, not even the most diehard Orangemen fan would have believed it.

Not only did Syracuse edge Carolina in the East Regional semi-finals in Providence on a last second Lee jumper, but SU had to score from under its own basket in under five seconds in regulation to tie Kansas State in the regional finals, before pulling away in OT as assistant coach Boeheim was part of the most unlikely Final Four participant up to that point since Dayton was dominated by UCLA in the 1967 final.

1987-North Carolina again came into play in Boeheim’s first Final Four appearance as head coach.  Winning back-to-back games of the tournament for the first time since he took the head job in 1976, the Orange benefitted from the fact that those first two victories were played in the Dome, something that would be unheard of today.

In the East Regional final against UNC at the Meadowlands, SU dominated for the first 30 minutes until a late Tar Heels rally fell four points short.  Rony Seikaly’s dominate inside play (59 points and 20 boards in two regional games) usurped the more heralded Heels freshman J.R. Reid.  In fact, that was a Carolina team that Dean Smith labeled “great,” a word he rarely used, with seven players going on to play in the NBA.

1996-After one of the more thrilling games in school history, a John Wallace three-pointer with under three seconds remaining in OT that edged Georgia by two in the regional semi-finals at Denver’s (since demolished) McNichols Arena, the Orangemen went up against a future familiar foe in Kansas’ Roy Williams in the finals.

This might have been the game that first elevated the 2-3 zone in the national spotlight as a Syracuse signature.  For one, few teams continued to play the defense as the three-point shot was winding up its first decade in the rulebook, and two, SU played it so well that season and especially against the Jayhawks that they were confounded into making only 4 of 25 three-point shots as SU held on late to win by three.

2003-The Sports Illustrated cover following the championship game win over old rivals Williams and Kansas said it best: “Orangemen: Unranked to No. 1.”

Sure, freshmen sensations Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara got plenty of publicity, but after a conference tournament semi-final loss to Connecticut, no one saw a Final Four trip on the horizon, even after the brackets revealed a home-court atmosphere awaiting in Albany should SU get to the Sweet 16.

After a somewhat harrowing one-point win over Auburn that wasn’t decided until the final shot of the game at the buzzer in the regional semis, the 2-3 zone was so dominant against top-seed Oklahoma that the Sooners had more turnovers than field goals (19 to 18) in a 63-47 win before a howling Carrier Dome East crowd.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.