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SU players made Boeheim proud this season

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ATLANTA — As dawn broke Sunday, Syracuse was beginning a sullen trek home to Central New York instead of heading to the Georgia Dome to prepare for a national championship game.

And you can bet the Orange were still digesting what went wrong during Saturday's 61-56 NCAA semifinal loss to Michigan.

There will be time for closer introspection and analysis later this week for both the coaches and players. All fans know is that their beloved Orange fell short of a second national crown.

SU supporters should be ecstatic that this particular team made it this far.

Under the circumstances, having lost four key players from last year's Elite Eight squad, and filling in the gaps with kids who had never played such prominent roles, it was a terrific season.

Coach Jim Boeheim, who has had more talented squads do less than this one, acknowledged how he felt about this group early Sunday morning.

“These kids did an incredible job of fighting and maintaining their focus throughout the season,'' Boeheim said. “We have our flaws to be sure. But they just dug in and battled through a lot of adversity and just played ball all year long.''

Boeheim also indicated “this team was as fun to coach as any I've ever sad. That's saying something after 37 years.''

What they accomplished was another 30-win season for the veteran coach, his seventh, the school's fifth Final Four appearance in five different decades, and the respect of opposing coaches.

“That's one gutty, tough team,'' Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We had them down and out several times, and they just kept fighting back. That's a credit to Jim and how he prepares his kids.''

SU senior guard Brandon Triche said, “It was disappointing to not play as well as we could in our final game, but we gave it all we had. I think you can say that about the whole season — we left it all on the floor.''

There were plenty of highs and several lows that ultimately made it an interesting season.

It began with a game on an old aircraft carrier in San Diego harbor. There, the new-look Orange beat a highly regarded San Diego State team, 62-49.

Three weeks later, the Orange posted one of its most impressive wins of the season, beating Arkansas on the road in the SEC/Big East Challenge. That was the Razorbacks' only home loss of the season.

SU reeled off 10 straight wins to the start the season before falling to Temple in the Gotham Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Boeheim's club, 12-1 heading into its final Big East Conference season, got a huge lift from sophomore Michael Carter-Williams, who emerged as one of the top point guards in the country, and junior forward C.J. Fair, who showed an expanded offensive game,

SU won its first three conference games rather routinely before James Southerland was sidelined with an eligibility issue before the Villanova game on Jan. 12. He eventually served a six-game suspension.

With Southerland out, the Orange still posted home wins over Villanova and Cincinnati and a huge road victory at then-No. 1 Louisville.

But then, things went sour. SU dropped back-to-back games at Villanova and Pittsburgh.

A 57-46 loss to Georgetown before the largest home crowd in Carrier Dome history started a three-game losing streak. The Orange also fell to Marquette and Louisville.

The Orange closed the season by losing seven of its last 12 games, concluding with the worst loss of the year, 61-39, at Georgetown in the Big East regular-season finale.

“It would have been easy to just play out the season at that point,'' Southerland said. “But we continued to believe in ourselves and were determined that the season wasn't going to end on such a bad note.''

SU's stunning run to the Big East title game gave Orange fans renewed hope, especially with the 2-3 zone stifling opponents.

Their stellar play continued through two relatively easy NCAA wins in California, a stunning double-digit win over East Region top seed Indiana in Washington, D.C., and a payback victory over Marquette in the regional final.

“Reaching the Final Four is great,'' Boeheim said. “But people only remember you if you win.''

The uncertain status of a couple of players will determine what next year's team will look like.

Carter-Williams is almost certainly gone. He's projected as a high NBA draft choice, possibly a lottery pick. Fair, after a strong finish, may also attract some pro looks.

SU will also miss the leadership and experience of Triche and Southerland, guiding forces behind the late-season resurgence.

As for the other returnees, sophomore forward Rakeem Christmas must make major improvements to his game; redshirt freshman guard Trevor Cooney has to make more shots; Coleman, who missed a month with knee problems, needs to establish himself as a low-post scorer; and Grant must build off a solid rookie season.

SU's five-player recruiting class is ranked in the top 10 in the country. The highlight player is point guard Tyler Ennis, who would replace Carter-Williams. Duke transfer Michael Gbinje, a 6-5 guard, will also be in the mix.

As for Boeheim, he insisted again he will be on the bench when SU begins a new era in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“I love the Big East. But if it was even remotely the same conference as it has been, I would quit because I wouldn't be happy,'' he said. “But it isn't. In fact, there's more Big East teams in the ACC than there are Big East teams in whatever the conference's new name is (American Athletic).''


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