Item: If you watch Syracuse basketball games on any of the ACC’s broadcast partners, you’ve undoubtedly seen those ubiquitous, contractually-mandated conference promotional messages shouting out to the rest of the major college basketball landscape; that with seven current league members having won national championships over the past 15 years, if you’re going to compete in the ACC, “you better bring your ‘A’ game.” As the 2016 tournament’s first week concluded with some unfathomable finishes, and Syracuse joining five conference counterparts (not even mentioning an exiled Louisville) to form a record six members of the Sweet 16, with the way the brackets fall the prospects for continued ACC dominance loom large.
Of course, Jim Boeheim would never publicly answer the question about comparing the strength of the Big East of old (five Sweet 16 teams in 2009) with the ACC of today (six in this year’s Sweet 16, and five last season), as he was asked following the No. 10 seed Orange’s 75-50 second round NCAA win over Middle Tennessee Sunday in St. Louis, which advanced Syracuse (21-13) to its 18th Sweet 16 appearance under Boeheim, and fifth over the last eight seasons, continuing an unlikely season against sizzling 11th seed Gonzaga (28-7) Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at the United Center in Chicago (9:40 p.m. ET approx. / TV: CBS – Digital: March Madness Live).
At his core Boeheim has always been downright loyal to those close to him and those who have helped define his Hall of Fame career as long as it has lasted, and that certainly defines the original Big East.
Add in the fact that the ACC of today is a realigned combination of its Tobacco Road legacy and the Big East of old, and until any other conference boasts three (or all) of the Final Four teams as the Big East did in 1985, the first year of expansion to 65 teams, or dare we say have a monumental feat on the order of an ACC four team intramural tournament on the sport’s biggest stage in Houston in two weeks, which was being bandied about in The Triangle this past weekend, then the old school Big East still holds the distinction of one season conference dominance ending with Villanova’s famous upset of Georgetown.
The ACC’s downright dominating 12-1 tourney mark aside, let’s not take away from the ‘Cuse’s almost sterling (turnovers still a bugaboo) NCAA performances coming off its late season swoon against the A10 regular season co-champions Dayton, and Conference USA’s surprising tournament winner Middle Tennessee, coming off one of the biggest first round 2/15 seed shockers ever in dispatching trendy national title pick Michigan State.
Now it’s a four game season one at a time or the same motto Gonzaga has been using since catching fire following its last loss at home to league rival Saint Mary’s on Feb. 20, having won seven straight behind imposing big men Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. Boeheim and Zags coach Mark Few go way back with Coaches vs. Cancer events around the country, and of course the great 2010 Orange team, hindered by the loss of Arinze Onuaku in the middle, routed Gonzaga 87-65 in the NCAA second round at Buffalo as Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins combined for 55 points.
With significant contributions from all seven players in the rotation so far, Dejuan Coleman, who himself has opened some eyes in the middle but has the 6’11” Sabonis to think about next, thinks the team is playing its best ball at the most opportune time.
“That last loss to Pitt (in the ACC Tournament) really woke us up,” Coleman said after scoring eight points and grabbing five boards against Middle Tennessee. “We’ve definitely turned it up a notch. It’s the second season now and everyone’s grown up (the freshmen), everyone’s stepping up.”