This summer’s idea by Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde of college sports realigning into 10 geographically-friendly conferences to be more fiscally responsible during these current COVID-19 times got the wheels inside my head turning. While it doesn’t necessarily relate to Forde’s premise, the question is:
What would the ultimate Syracuse college basketball conference look like?
The parameters are:
- 14 teams
- Pack the conference full of teams that have given Syracuse the best (and worst) memories most consistently throughout the basketball program’s history
- … And no touching of the hair or the face!!!
Let the fun begin:
First, the honorable mentions…
THE LESS MEMORABLE FORMER BIG EAST FOES
Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall and West Virginia. All have had their share of players and coaches come through that tested Syracuse. From P.J. Carlesimo and Terry Dehere to John Beilein and Kevin Pittsnogle and more, it’s a good cast of characters. Just not worthy of being in the ultimate conference for Syracuse hoops.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME OPPONENTS
Syracuse has appeared in the NCAA National Championship game. Each time, they faced one of college basketball’s Blue Bloods.
The most recent one in 2003? Hakim Warrick’s wingspan preserved the Orange(men)’s first and only national title to date, holding off Kansas.
The other in 1996? Yeah…not as successful. Syracuse’s Cinderella story struck midnight when it faced a Kentucky team led by head coach Rick Pitino and a slew of would-be NBA players. Nine of them, to be exact. Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Tony Delk, Derek Anderson, Mark Pope, Nazr Mohammed, Jeff Sheppard and Wayne Turner all went on to play in the NBA. That party of pros proved to be too much for John Wallace, Lazarus Sims and company.
SIDE NOTE: I actually was around Tony Delk last weekend. He was putting on a tournament in the Atlanta area in which my friends’ daughter was playing. I even had my Syracuse Yeti cup with me. Part of me wanted to just walk up to him, flash the block “S” on my cup to him and tell him, “Not fair, man. Not fair.” But, I thought better of it. Had my wife known my plans, she probably would have thanked me for my restraint. Maddie’s team ended up winning the tournament. A bit of retribution for 1996? Perhaps…
But, to be the best, you wanna beat the best. To have two of the all-time great programs to go up against every year would be fun to see.
And now, I present to you the other 13 teams that would make up the ultimate Syracuse basketball conference:
Georgetown. I mean…duh. Patrick Ewing, John Thompson, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo (and oddly enough, for me, Michael Sweetney was always among the Georgetown thorns in Syracuse’s side)…what do they all have in common? They all make Syracuse fans cringe at the thought of what has probably been the biggest rival Syracuse has encountered in its history. I mean, the two teams aren’t even in the same conference now. But, if I were to say, “It’s 2020,” my guess is almost every Syracuse fan knows how to finish the sentence in regards to the Hoyas.
Connecticut. Much to my surprise, the Orange actually lead the all-time series against the Huskies, 56-39. Once Jim Calhoun came along and really turned UConn into a basketball powerhouse, it seemed like they had Syracuse’s number more times than not. Many stars have walked through Storrs, Connecticut. Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Kemba Walker, Rudy Gay, Caron Butler…and yes, even the pesky Jake Voskuhl. The list goes on and on. But, while the Georgetown rivalry was built on nastiness and, sometimes, actual hatred, the rivalry with UConn was built more on mutual respect and talent recognizing talent.
St. John’s. The last of the big-time, old school Big East rivals, St. John’s and Syracuse is remembered for battles against Chris Mullin, Ron Artest, Lou Carnesecca and Lou Carnesecca’s sweaters.
Duke. Since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, Syracuse and its fans have most looked forward to playing Duke every year. It’s provided some instant classics in just seven years. From the Syracuse win in overtime in the first conference battle in 2014, to John Gillon’s buzzer-beater in 2017 and even C.J. Fair’s (cough) charge (cough) and Jim Boeheim losing his mind in Durham in 2014, it’s hard to find a rivalry that started off that hot, that fast. Everybody is waiting for the next time these two teams lock horns, especially Boeheim’s personal tailor, who knows to have a few extra jackets ready for the coach in case things get out of hand again.
North Carolina. File this one under the same category as Kansas and Kentucky. Now that both teams are in the ACC, it’s always fun to see these two (nearly) perennial powers match up on a yearly basis. The conference duels haven’t had quite the sizzle that Syracuse and Duke have had. But, give it time. There will be memories to be had.
Virginia. The last of the new conference rivalries, Virginia and Syracuse have shared school color schemes and some intense battles on the hardwood in a short time. Most notable for Syracuse fans was when the Orange erased a 12-point halftime deficit at the Carrier Dome to upset the No.9 Cavaliers in 2017. Even more memorable was the 2016 Elite 8 matchup that saw the Orange come back to win after trailing by 16 at halftime, thanks to the heroics of Malachi Richardson. The win gave the Orange their sixth Final Four appearance in school history.
Notre Dame. With a lot of these old Big East opponents, it’s fun to look back at some of the names from the other schools. For Notre Dame, it was LaPhonso Ellis, Troy Murphy, Luke Harangody, Pat Garrity, Matt Carroll and the get-under-your-skin Chris Quinn that you look back on and remember the battles. Like a couple others, the Irish are among the schools that have since meandered away from the Big East to join the ACC in recent years.
Louisville. The rivalry with Louisville caught fire when Rick Pitino (there’s that guy again) became the coach and started leading the basketball team to prominence. At the apex of their rivalry, both teams appeared in the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta. The Orange suffered a gut-punching defeat to Michigan, while the Cardinals took down the Wolverines in the championship game, only to see the title taken away from them a few years later after a sex scandal within the team was revealed.
Pittsburgh. The Panthers aren’t what they were as a program 15-20 years ago. The junk-it-up, make-it-messy teams with Julius Page and Brandin Knight that made head coach Jamie Dixon a household name in the coaching ranks gave Syracuse fits. Now, coach Jeff Capel is trying to lead them back to prominence in the ACC.
Villanova. When I think Villanova, I always think Kerry Kittles and, more specifically, his knee-high socks. He wore those on the heels of Lawrence Moten’s Syracuse career. Villanova has gone on to achieve great things under head coach Jay Wright, having won national championships in 2016 and 2018. Before that, he was establishing roots for his program in the Big East against Syracuse with the likes of Kyle Lowry, Allan Ray and Randy Foye.
Boston College. Like Pittsburgh, Boston College has fallen off the map a little bit in the college basketball landscape. The Eagles had success as recently as the early- to mid-2000’s with guys like Troy Bell, Craig Smith and Jared Dudley. But, they now find themselves near the bottom of the ACC standings most seasons recently. For geographical purposes, continuing the Boston College-Syracuse tradition is probably a good thing, though.
Washington. To hell with geography for this one, though. It’s my ultimate conference and I’ll do with it what I will! Now that the Washington Huskies have Syracuse’s prodigal son, Mike Hopkins, at the helm, this makes for a perfect “family” rivalry. Hopkins has a rich history in Syracuse, obviously, having played there under Boeheim, coached there with Boeheim for a trillion (or so) years. Heck, Hopkins was even the coach-in-waiting before Boeheim decided he wasn’t ready to hang up with sport coat anytime soon. So, Hopkins went west and has acquitted himself quite nicely for the purple and gold. Hopkins led them to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and, in addition to coaching former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz (whom he did not recruit), Hopkins has done exactly what he used to do for the Orange: recruit very, very well.
Indiana. Two words: Keith. Smart. Revenge needs to be had…