NCAA BK

Syracuse finds some redemption in win

Hear from Syracuse after its 75-59 win over Kansas State.
Hear from Syracuse after its 75-59 win over Kansas State.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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PITTSBURGH

If you’re looking for a half of basketball that perfectly demonstrates the resilience of the Syracuse Orange during this wild, unpredictable season, pay close attention to the final 20 minutes of their 75-59 victory over Kansas State on Saturday.

Throughout the first half, Syracuse more closely resembled the one-seed that barely squeaked by a 16-seed two days before than the team that’s been ranked in the top five nationally all year.

They stunk. They were lethargic. They were sloppy. They were out of synch. They were an embarrassment of a one-seed. They looked like they just wanted the tournament to be over so they could get on with life. The team’s motor, point guard Scoop Jardine, had four turnovers. Coach Jim Boeheim was making pained, exasperated faces. They were sorely missing 7-foot inside presence Fab Melo, getting outrebounded 15 to three on the offensive glass. Yes, Syracuse was up one at half, but that’s only because Kansas State couldn’t make a shot if its life depended on it — shooting 23 percent from the field in the first half.

It seemed obvious this season of adversity had finally caught up with them. The sexual-abuse allegations against Boeheim’s longtime assistant Bernie Fine, the intense media exposure that followed, the reports of Syracuse violating its own drug policy during the past decade, and finally Melo being declared ineligible on the eve of the NCAA tournament: It was all too much. Eventually, you break.

In the locker room at half, forward Kris Joseph went up to Jardine, the team’s other senior leader.

“I told him, 'Thank God for two halves,'” Joseph told FOXSports.com after the team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. “It’s a chance to redeem yourself.”

Which is exactly what Syracuse did.

And that people were surprised by it was exactly the point. All year this team has lived in a bubble. All year they’ve outperformed the expectations of others. The question surrounding this Syracuse team has never been whether they were good enough, or talented enough, or well-coached enough. They have all that in spades, with perhaps the deepest team in the country and a coach who is as much an institution in central New York as Krzyzewski is in Durham.

The question has always revolved around how they can deal with being burdened with so much, and how they can respond to all this turmoil and struggle.

And what they did on Saturday was shrug off a first half of turmoil and struggle and play the second half like a team that could go all the way. That’s the message this Syracuse team has been sending all season: That this team thrives under adversity, that they’re built for clutch, and that all the distractions and adversity of this season have only made them stronger.

“We played in games like these all season long,” Joseph said as he tore a grapefruit-sized ice pack off his knee on the way to the team bus. “The adversity off the court doesn’t faze us anymore because we faced it so early in the year. It’s OK with us. We lost Fab, yeah, people had their doubts. But we as a team knew we had two great centers to step in in his place. It’s just a matter of us playing and doing what we do best.”

What they did best in Saturday’s second half? Hard to say, because they did everything pretty darn well. They spread the ball around, with four players finishing with 11 or more points on the afternoon. The Orange outrebounded Kansas State 15-9 on the half while 6-foot-9 freshman Rakeem Christmas ably filled the void left by Melo, finishing with eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. And Jardine shrugged off the poor decisions of his first half and took over the game, ending with eight assists and 16 points, including three key second-half three-pointers that choked any Kansas State momentum.

“Everybody says you have to have a go-to guy,” Boeheim said. “I really think you’re better if you have different guys. Because if they cheat to one guy, it’s somebody else. It’s better to have more than one guy who can make a play.”

You could take their opening round near-loss to a 16-seed as evidence that Syracuse has finally been exposed. Or you could take the resounding win against a tough Kansas State team as proof positive that Syracuse is for real and will live up to that No. 2 national ranking.

The truth, of course, is in between. Making the Final Four is a long road. Syracuse is not a perfect basketball team. But Saturday was a huge step in the right direction. And Boeheim’s a coach who prides himself in never letting his team get too high or too low. That’s how the Orange has coped with the ups and downs of this year, by living inside that Boeheim bubble of protection. They’ll spend the next several days working on how to adapt to life without Melo. They’ll show up in Boston disciplined and focused – and with a bit of a chip on their shoulder as the 33-win team that people love to criticize.

“We just focus,” Boeheim said. “We always have. That’s what we do. I try to focus on what’s ahead, and try to be as good as we can be… I don’t want my players to get too excited. I’m not going to get too excited. I’m not going to get too upset. We’re going to get back and prepare for the next game.”

After all, this has been a season where Boeheim and his players have never known what’s around the corner. The next game is the only thing that’s been assured, and focusing on that and only that has been this team’s salvation.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Syracuse, Kansas State, Kansas, Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, Fab Melo

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