Things still mellow in Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The plan was to meet Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim for breakfast at a "pancake place." No name was mentioned, just a recommendation by Boeheim, which was good enough for me.
Thinking back on it now, the "pancake place" couldn't have been a more appropriate place to meet the coach who had six months earlier fulfilled a lifelong mission in New Orleans. The morning conversation wouldn't be held at some sort of high-end breakfast spot, or even a cozy Syracuse diner, overflowing with character.
No, it was an IHOP.
So, there we were, the defending national championship coach, one of the most recognizable faces ever to grace this snow-squalled city in central New York, sitting at about as regular a place as possible. And everyone knew at least one of us that morning.
The dishwasher in the back yelled "Hey, Coach" as we were seated. The waitress seemed to know what Boeheim wanted before he ordered. And, as for the other customers who seemed to care less who was sitting in the booth closest to the door, well celebrity isn't what Boeheim is all about. Besides, most were out-of-towners.
Boeheim blends into this city's fabric, which is understandable since he's spent the better part of his life coaching basketball at Syracuse University. Yes, his 27th season in charge of the Orangemen ended with the school's first national championship. But it's obvious sitting with Boeheim that nothing has changed him. And, more than anything else, his casual style has helped the Orangemen transition into the post-Carmelo Anthony era with less pressure, but just as much intensity as a year ago.
Boeheim may not show the passion, obsession, or cunning desire to win on the surface. But it's there.
"The biggest surprise to me is that I'm hungrier than I've ever been," said Boeheim. "I've been anxious about this season since the (NCAA) Tournament ended. It surprised the hell out of me. I figured it would be the opposite."
Then again, complacency isn't an option, especially when Syracuse's title defense is more about proving it can do it again without Carmelo Anthony around than living up to expectations. But don't let losing quite possibly the best freshman to play the game in recent memory fool you. Melo may be gone, but the Orangemen still in town -- and that starts with Boeheim -- aren't about to give up their rep as the team to beat in 2004.
"I've been ready to go for a while and I don't know why that is," Boeheim said. "I think it's because you see the possibilities that you can do it again. Some years it's not realistic. There used to be a time when you thought you had a shot every four or five years. But now I think we've got a shot."
Boeheim, 58, isn't rushing things, either. There is no reason to feel he won't coach as long as he wants. Syracuse certainly isn't looking for his successor any time soon. Boeheim is free of those health issues that sidelined him two years ago. The prostrate surgery went without a hiccup and the national title just solidified his spot in the Hall of Fame -- whenever he decides to leave Syracuse.
But with a team still loaded with four potentially fabulous freshmen, a rising star in junior forward Hakim Warrick and two of the grittiest sophomores in the game -- Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin -- Boeheim is hardly thinking about quitting.
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"I was more anxious to get out and recruit this past summer than ever," Boeheim said. "I really look forward to coaching this team."
And why not? These kids love playing for him. They are loose and show no signs of cockiness that comes with hanging a national championship banner. Sit down with Edelin, McNamara, Warrick and junior Josh Pace, and you hear the reverence for Boeheim in their voices. The freedom he has instilled in each player isn't taken for granted. Instead, they take the controlled but loose atmosphere as a privilege that they want to honor.
"They take coach's lead," said Syracuse assistant Troy Weaver. "He's a low-key kind of guy. That's how this program is."
Speaking of the program, don't look for any shrines around campus that honor the national champs -- at least not in the basketball offices at Manley Field House. There is no full-length poster of Anthony to celebrate his leadership. Quite frankly the SU offices look like they could be used for an episode of one of the highly popular makeover shows with a rather staid early '80s décor.
But again, this team nor Boeheim, is about flash. This is a team that simply went out last year and went from unranked in the preseason to No. 1. It was business as usual under Boeheim, causing havoc for opponents with a 2-3 zone that befuttled the best teams in the country, while finding enough ways to score around Anthony.
"This team is so down to earth," said McNamara, who averaged 13.3 points as a freshman and 18.5 in two Final Four games. "That's what surprised me last year. I wasn't sure how I was going to be treated when I got here, but you'll find that 90 percent of what people say about our team is good and that's off the court."
The story out of Final Four weekend goes like this: During the Friday public "practice" in the Superdome, Boeheim was talking to the ESPN on-air talent instead of marching around ordering his players into sets. By Monday night, Boeheim was still telling his team that Kansas was the team uptight heading into the title game, not the Orangemen. He told them to go out, play loose and win.
"The freedom from coach Boeheim is a gift," McNamara said. "He gives us confidence that we'll get done what he thinks we should. A lot of coaches are real tough and sometimes guys get fed up. He lets you do what you're supposed to do and have fun with it."
But don't kid yourself into thinking Boeheim wasn't his usual crafty self that week in the Big Easy. He orchestrated a way to win the title. He leaned on an offense that had enough balance to keep both Texas and Kansas guessing more than their defenses ever needed to against earlier opponents in the NCAA Tournament.
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Look for another big year from the Orangemen as they seek to defend their national title. It helps that Syracuse has only one game away from home prior to Jan. 12. They won't take many early losses, baby!
When you talk to coach Jimmy Boeheim, there's a smile on his face because he has lots of talent. Yes, the departure (to the NBA) of Carmelo Anthony -- last season's consensus freshman of the year -- leaves a major hole to fill. But with the experienced players returning, plus a host of new players coming in, this will be a big year.
Shooting guard Gerry McNamara can flat-out stroke the J. And look for greater things from point guard Billy Edelin. These two super sophomores, along with junior forward Hakim Warrick, will lead the 'Cuse. Even without Anthony, this team will be dangerous.
"We were the loosest team there by far," Weaver said. "Kansas was tight during the championship game. Coach just told them we were there to play a few games and that was it. That's why we won."
"The most important thing a coach can do is let his players be relaxed," Boeheim said. "Players can be so tense on the offensive end because there is so much control from some coaches. But if you've got good players, you've got to let them play.
"We've always been a good offensive team. It wasn't our defense in those two (Final Four) games. It wasn't our defense that stopped Texas. We slowed T.J. Ford down a bit, but it was our offense in both games that led us to the wins."
That offense started with Anthony, who led the Orange in scoring (22.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.1 rpg). But the next six leading scorers all return for 2003-04 -- three of whom averaged at least 11 points a game. And it's those six, along with a few freshmen, who will have plenty of motivation. The returning Orangemen know the nation is waiting for them to fail without Anthony.
"We're pretty good, but we won a lot of close games down the wire last season," Boeheim said. "People will move up on Gerry, but he's better than most people think. Carmelo was our bail-out guy and was a very, very good leader for a young guy."
No doubt, Anthony's presence drew so much defensive interest that Warrick was freed up inside and McNamara could easily get open on the wing to make shots. But McNamara welcomes being more of a focus of a defense. Edelin is jacked to get a full season after sitting out the first 12 games of his freshman season because he played in a men's league the previous season while suspended from the Syracuse program. Pace is now a full-time starter.
But, it's Warrick who will have to deal with the ongoing pressure that he's the next potential lottery pick who could leave after this season.
"We are more hungry because 'Melo went No. 3 in the draft and that's why people think we won," Edelin said. "We've all got something to prove."
There is a different dynamic. The Orangemen don't need their freshmen to produce nearly as much as a group, as they did Anthony on his own, to achieve their goals this season. Forward Craig Forth (3.8 ppg) has slimmed down by 20 pounds and is determined to be a more productive 7-footer than he was a year ago. But Boeheim said his best lineup might be Warrick and freshman Terrence Roberts inside. Roberts is a physical specimen at 6-9, 221 pounds, with little body fat and a tendency to search out any loose ball. Boeheim said he could end up being the team's best player.
The other three freshmen will each have different roles and expectations. The 6-11 Darryl Watkins is another slender inside defender with long arms and could end up being a perfect complement to the rangy Warrick. But Watkins is still learning the game and could take a few months to adjust to the college flow of things. Forward Demetris Nichols might not be as strong as Watkins or as ready as Roberts, but he will play. Guard Louie McCrosky could end up being the most versatile perimeter player and most reliable shooter of the newcomers.
"The key will be how our freshmen do," Boeheim said. "We have duplication at some positions, and unless we get real creative, we've got to figure it out. Terrence Roberts could be our best player, and we've got to figure out how he gets his minutes."
In looking at his Orangemen, Boeheim sees comparisons to Maryland a year ago. The Terps lost three critical players (Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox) from their national title team, but they had a core returning in Steve Blake, Tahj Holden, Drew Nicholas and Ryan Randle. Maryland added some key freshmen, who by March made the Terps their usual dangerous selves in the NCAA Tournament.
"We'll be just like that," Weaver said. "We will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament."
Heck, they aren't even favored to win the Big East, let alone the national championship. But expectations are the same in Syracuse. The only difference is the Orange is trying do duplicate their Dance steps for the first time.
And, this program, its coach and the players still in town don't mind blending into the national landscape. It works for Boeheim. It works for the champs.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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