So Syracuse is coming back to Buffalo. I have to admit, it seemed like a much bigger deal four years ago.
In 2010, it was our first time hosting Jim Boeheim and the Orange in an NCAA Tournament subregional. There was a novel quality to SU’s impending arrival, a rising sense of civic anticipation, as if the circus was coming to town.
This year, it feels different somehow. I know we have some fine teams in our bracket. Syracuse, Villanova and Connecticut are all coming to the arena. It feels like a Big East reunion. Maybe that’s the problem. I never really got over the breakup of the old Big East.
Or maybe it’s Syracuse. In 2010, it wasn’t just that they were coming for the first time, but that they seemed on their way to greater things. The Orange were a No. 1 seed, a deep squad that appeared destined for the Final Four.
That SU team rolled through its two games here. We were rapt bystanders, waving them on to the next challenge. Little did we know that Syracuse would run smack into Butler, which was just beginning its stunning run to two straight national championship games.
Syracuse will show up this week looking less like a contender than a victim, a wounded animal. The Orange were like visiting royalty in 2010. Four years later, they’re like a faltering monarch with his crown askew and his garments in tatters.
Over the years, I’ve learned never to underestimate a Jim Boeheim team. Some of his best teams have been the ones who entered a season unranked. Conversely, some of his most gifted squads have been among his most disappointing in March.
This year’s team strikes me as one that overachieved early and found its level. The Orange started 25-0 and climbed to No. 1 in the nation. They’ll stagger into Buffalo having lost five of their last seven games, including an early exit in their first-ever ACC tourney.
One month ago today, SU was unbeaten, an apparent lock for a No. 1 seed here. Two days later, they lost at home to a bad Boston College team. When they lost to North Carolina State on Friday, it wasn’t certain they would come to Buffalo at all.
The Orange got placed in the South, costing them an opportunity to play in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden, where Boeheim enjoyed so many fine moments during the old Big East days.
No doubt, some fans on Tobacco Road had a laugh at Boeheim’s expense. When it became clear that Syracuse was leaving the Big East for the ACC, he mockingly asked if people would rather spend five days at a tournament in Greensboro, N.C., or New York City.
Well, at least he gets a few days in Buffalo. Two days, anyway. It’s not like me to root against a team, least of all our neighbors down the I-90. But if you’ve been paying attention for the last 25 years, you know how much I love upsets in the NCAAs.
The opening Thursday-Friday of the Big Dance is my favorite two days in sports. The creeping commercialism of the NCAA can’t even ruin it. The charm, of course, is the prospect of seeing the mighty and wealthy schools lose to much smaller foes.
Over the years, I’ve covered four memorable upsets. Northern Iowa over Missouri in 1990; Old Dominion over Villanova in 1995; Richmond over South Carolina in 1998; and Northwestern State over Iowa in 2006. All of them involved No. 14 seeds knocking off No. 3’s.
In four subregionals in Buffalo, we haven’t had a major first-round upset. No team seeded fifth or better has lost its first game. The closest we’ve come was a couple of 11 seeds over No. 6’s – VCU over Duke in 2007 and Pepperdine over Indiana in Bobby Knight’s last game with the Hoosiers in 2000.
One of these days, it would be nice to see a major upset occur in downtown Buffalo, with the entire nation tuned in.
Maybe Syracuse will be the one to go down. It seems ripe for an upset. They’re not deep and they’re limited offensively. Since that 91-89 win over Duke on Feb. 1, the Orange have scored more than 63 points just once in 11 games.
Jerami Grant, the Orange’s sophomore forward, has been suffering from back issues lately. If Grant is back near top form, and if guards Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis play the way they did when SU was unbeaten, the Orange can make another run to the Final Four.
There’s more balance than ever in college basketball, no truly great teams. The Orange could get on a roll again and make everyone forget what happened over the last month. Or they could lose to virtually any team in the land if they don’t get their act together.
“There’s nobody that good,” Boeheim said last week before the ACC Tournament. “And if you’re a little off your game, you can lose.”
That goes for Villanova, too, a No. 2 seed that doesn’t seem like a team about to go on a run. It’s hard to fathom how Louisville, the reigning national champ and one of the hottest teams around, was relegated to a No. 4 seed while Villanova got a No. 2.
Louisville plays in the new AAC, which did not do well with the selection committee. Connecticut, another Big East refugee, was seeded seventh in the East. If the seeds hold, UConn will take on Villanova, its former Big East rival, here on Saturday.
Well, this subregional is starting to become interesting. I’ve convinced myself that neither Syracuse nor Villanova is getting out of here.