Time for Boeheim to win hardware
CINCINNATI -- Jim Boeheim was in his customary position at the postgame podium. Right fist pressed against right cheek. Voice flat. Glee cleverly concealed beneath his permagloom exterior.
Someone asked the funereal Syracuse coach how much fun he's having in this unexpected 23-1 season.
"I've never described my job as having fun," Boeheim droned.
Of course not. It would blow his image.
Star forward Wes Johnson described himself as "speechless" over how "wonderful" it is to play for Boeheim. "He's a player's coach," Johnson said.
But the player's coach is not much of a people person in public. When it comes to smiling, he's the anti-Hines Ward. He's as outwardly joyful as Bill Belichick, as lighthearted as Trent Reznor, as cheery as a snow drift.
But somewhere beneath the 65-year-old's misery-infused mien is a kid turning cartwheels over the performance of this team. After completely locking up Cincinnati for the last 12 minutes of a 71-54 victory Sunday, one thing is very clear:
If the voting were held today, Jim Boeheim should be the national Coach of the Year.
He's first by a solid margin on my ballot, with Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, BYU's Dave Rose and Kansas State's Frank Martin thereafter in some order.
Now here's the shocking news: If Boeheim were to win such an award this year, it would be his first.
The Big East has honored him three times, in 1984, '91 and 2000. Barring a jarring collapse, the league can go ahead and get the engraver working on a fourth. But the love has never traveled outside the Northeast.
He's been a head coach since 1976. He's won 822 games, second among active coaches and sixth all time. He's won more Big East games (366) than anyone. He's won 20 games in a record 32 seasons, two more than Dean Smith. And he's won a national title and been to three Final Fours.
Yet nobody has ever gotten around to handing him any hardware for the best coaching job in the country. In the past two decades they've given Coach of the Year to guys like Matt Doherty, Rod Barnes, Randy Ayres, Cliff Ellis and Bill Guthridge -- but never to Boeheim.
"I didn't know that," Syracuse sharpshooter Andy Rautins said. "If there was ever a year, he should be up for it this year."
That's because everyone looked at this Orange team on paper in October and yawned. They saw gaping holes in scoring, rebounding and assists from the 2008-09 team and wondered who was going to fill them. That's why the media picked Syracuse to finish sixth in the Big East.
"When you lose your three leading scorers [low preseason rankings] are automatic pretty much," Boeheim said. "But they don't do that with North Carolina."
That zinger to the stumbling giant on Tobacco Road was delivered with the usual Boeheim deadpan, right fist still propping up his owlish head. It was a completely accurate zinger: The Tar Heels have turned out to be every bit as overrated as the Orange are underrated.
"I think I did say we were going to be good a couple dozen times," Boeheim said.
The reason was experience. Even after losing Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris from a 26-win team, Boeheim still had a veteran roster.
Through Sunday's game, Rautins and big men Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson have a combined 200 career starts. Junior point guard Scoop Jardine played extensively in 2007-08 before missing last season with an injury. And Johnson was a two-year double-digit scorer at Iowa State before transferring to Syracuse last season.
I didn't know that. If there was ever a year, he should be up for it this year.” -- Syracuse's Andy Rautins on Jim Boeheim not winning a Coach of the Year title
What we did not know was that Johnson was ready to turn into an All-American-caliber player, and that super sub Kris Joseph was ready to more than triple his scoring average from last season.
Now we know.
"It feels great," said Joseph. "We didn't really worry about it, because we knew we were a great basketball team and were going to prove people wrong."
The main weapon Syracuse is using to disprove the doubters is a 2-3 zone that is better than usual -- perhaps even better than ever. Finding itself down 49-43 to Cincinnati with about 12 minutes left, the Cuse simply choked the Bearcats to death.
The run to the final gun was 28-5 for the Orange. Syracuse went from in danger to in the clear to winning easily. Even with Johnson playing just 23 low-impact minutes because of fouls and soreness from a hard fall against Providence last week, the Cuse couldn't be beaten by a highly motivated team with an 11-1 home record.
Because Cincinnati couldn't find even a sliver of opportunity within that zone when the game was on the line.
"Our theme this year is to shut them down," said Joseph, "and make life a living hell."
Here was Cincy's life in hell: Its last 17 possessions produced 11 missed shots, five turnovers, five points and one made field goal.
"There's arms and hands everywhere," Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. "Length everywhere."
Length and strength. Syracuse was too active, too diligent and too big for offensively challenged Cincinnati to solve.
"Size matters," Boeheim said, "at least in basketball."
He almost smiled cracking that joke. Almost.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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