INDIANAPOLIS — Syracuse straggled into the NCAA men’s tournament, a lowly No. 11 seed, and so you assumed that meant an early exit for Jim Boeheim and his team, right?
You must be new here.
The Orange toppled third-seeded West Virginia 75-72 Sunday night to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 next weekend. At this point, you might as well go ahead and pencil Boeheim and Syracuse in for the Final Four – or at least the Elite Eight — because that’s where we’re headed.
Five years ago, there was an addendum to the unwritten rules of March that said when Boeheim has a Syracuse team that muddles through the regular season and gets into the tournament as a double-digit seed, it morphs into a juggernaut. That, of course, was the year the Orange skidded into the tournament as a 10 seed, considered worthy of a bid by almost nobody but Boeheim, and went to the Final Four. (His fifth, for those keeping track.) In 2018, Syracuse’s next time in the tournament, it was an 11 seed and got to the Sweet 16.
Now, here we are.
“We’d like to be good in the regular season and the tournament,” Boeheim said. “But if you’re not as good as you’d like to be in the regular season, then let’s play well in the tournament. That’s what these guys have done.”
Syracuse getting in this year wasn’t as big a surprise as it was in 2016, but the Orange definitely had their blemishes. The two losses to Pitt, and a loss to Duke. Eighth place in the ACC.
But they put themselves on the right side of the bubble with three consecutive wins – against North Carolina, Clemson and North Carolina State – before losing to Virginia in the ACC tournament. That’s all they needed, though, because Boeheim’s March magic will take care of the rest.
Only Gonzaga, which has done it four times, has made more Sweet 16s as a double-digit seed than Syracuse.
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Whatever sorcery Boeheim has seems to have rubbed off on his son, Buddy. After scoring 30 points to lead Syracuse past sixth-seeded San Diego State on Friday night, the younger Boeheim poured in another 25 against West Virginia, with all but two of his field goals coming from long range.
“It’s something I dreamed about my whole life,” Buddy Boeheim said. “To win two games, be doubted in both, be the underdog, this means everything. If you were to ask me a month or two months ago, where I think we would be, I don’t think I would say Sweet 16, that’s for sure.”
What makes all of this so mesmerizing is there’s no good explanation for it. Boeheim is a great coach, obviously. But this is his 45th season, his 35th trip to the NCAA tournament, and his game plan hasn’t changed. He’s going to run his 2-3 zone, and someone – or more than one someone – will get a blazing hot hand.
And yet, there’s not a damn thing anyone seems able to do about it. That patented 2-3 zone becomes basketball’s version of the Bermuda triangle, swallowing up offenses and aspirations alike.
“I think the zone is just so different,” Buddy Boeheim said. “I just think the zone is really tough for teams. Teams in the ACC prep for it two or three times a year. And these teams see it maybe once every five or six years.”
OK, that works for a school like San Diego State. Or Gonzaga in 2016. But West Virginia and Syracuse played each other for decades in the old Big East. The Mountaineers, of all teams, knew what was coming. And West Virginia coach Bob Huggins knows a thing or two about Boeheim and defense. If anyone could neutralize Syracuse’s zone, it was going to be him. But aside from a five-minute span late in the second half, when Sean McNeil went off for 12 points, all on 3-pointers, the Mountaineers were discombobulated, never able to get anything going with any kind of consistency.
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Buddy Boeheim said he thinks this team’s offense might be a little better than some of Syracuse’s other teams. Or at least has more options. But those haven’t been kept under cover, either. Buddy Boeheim has scored 20-plus in seven of the last nine games, and seems to have found Steph Curry’s range.
Yet West Virginia couldn’t contain him in the second half, when he went off for 21 points on 7 of 11 shooting.
“He’s got good players,” Huggins said. “It just took some time for them to gel together. I think it took some time to understand what he was asking them to do. You don’t just roll out of bed and play two-three zone the way they do. … Everybody wants it to happen right now. It doesn’t work like that.”
But somehow, it works for Boeheim and his underdogs in the tournament. Even the bracket seems to be falling apart in the Orange’s favor. Top-seeded Illinois was taken out earlier Sunday by eighth-seeded Loyola-Chicago, while fifth-seeded Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson are already home. There was a chance a couple of the other high seeds would be cleared out by the end of the night, too.
“Look at some of the teams that are out,” Boeheim said. “It’s really hard to get to the Sweet 16.”
Unless you’re a double-digit Syracuse team, of course. Then it’s all but a given.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour