Item: At a robust 8-2 since the SU boss returned Jan. 9 from his mandated nine game banishment, with the only defeats coming against (current) Top Ten members North Carolina and Virginia, the now seven-man ‘Cuse rotation (sound familiar?) has evolved from talk of the NIT to one of the ACC’s deep NCAA Tournament roster members, playing its best basketball over the past 39 days.
Remember the initial angst back on Dec. 3 when the NCAA finally responded, and denied Jim Boeheim’s appeal of his nine game suspension, but tweaked the punishment to begin immediately, which in this case meant no Boeheim on the sidelines at the Verizon Center for the highly anticipated renewal of the Georgetown series less than two days away?
While Mike Hopkins’ emotional debut resulted in a seven point defeat to the charged up Hoyas, respectable considering such short notice, but certainly disappointing none-the-less, to make matters worse the bad vibe carried over the following weekend with the subsequent loss against a mediocre St. John’s team, now 7-19, that was the nadir point of the season, and Hopkins finished his nine games of keeping the chair warm with a 4-5 mark.
What if Boeheim’s ban had commenced on the original Dec. 30 date to open ACC play at Pittsburgh? The Orange lost that night as well as the next two games at Miami, and a tough to swallow, one point OT game at home to Clemson under Hopkins in the middle of his interim tenure, and you have to figure North Carolina would also have been a defeat, as it was under Boeheim.
From there, likely wins over Boston College and Wake Forest, and likely losses against Duke and Virginia, and in what would have been Hopkins final game originally versus Notre Dame in the Dome, a win in what turned out to be one of the best performances so far this season.
That would have been a 3-6 mark for Hopkins as opposed to his actual 4-5 record which covered only four ACC games, and if you look at the final results between the Pittsburgh and Notre Dame games, Boeheim recorded perhaps one extra victory in that stretch – the two point escape at Duke.
But from that point on as Boeheim has done what he does best, mold this team down to the seven players he’s comfortable with and maximize those matchups with a flexibility that features the contrast between fifth year guards Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije carrying the load on many nights, and freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon who’ve simply gotten better under Boeheim’s tutelage as the conference season has played out.
“I’ve been saying all year he’s a play maker, he can do anything on the court,” Lydon said of his classmate Richardson after the two combined to score 35 points, grab nine rebounds, and dish out eight assists in Sunday’s 75-61 win at Boston College. “Obviously, we’ve all gotten a little bit more mature (as the season has progressed), reading the game a lot better, he’s a great player.”
As we’re currently sprinting to what always seems like a fast end to the regular season each mid-February rapidly counting down the days until Selection Sunday, and for Syracuse (18-8, 8-5) rounding into late season form under a more energized and animated as ever Boeheim on course for his ongoing NCAA record 37th 20 win season, the next tough test Wednesday night at Louisville (7:00 p.m. ET / ESPN) will continue to show us the potential for how long a return trip to this year’s NCAA Tournament will play out.