Syracuse Athletic Director Daryl Gross first heard the story from sports information director Pete Moore on Monday night at Comcast Center, outside the visitor’s locker room moments after another win.
Longtime Coach Jim Boeheim had just refused ESPN’s postgame request for an interview after a 57-55 victory over Maryland, ignoring an approaching microphone and walking off the court after working his way through the handshake line.
It was on principle. The network wanted to interview him before the game about his first career ejection at Duke two days earlier. Boeheim only wanted to talk about his team and that night’s game. The Syracuse delegation all agreed with the coach’s decision. They knew he would have plenty to say a few minutes later.
Boeheim, after emerging for his news conference, would soon take on Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon for complaining about the officials, contorting his face with every thought, cracking jokes and generally getting himself into and out of trouble with that sarcastic, self-deprecating charm nobody else in college basketball can pull off.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t funny tonight,” Boeheim said as he departed the podium 10 minutes later to laughter. Gross left the room shaking his head.
“That’s why we love him,” he said.
Like its 69-year-old coach, No. 4 Syracuse (26-2, 13-2) has been narrowly avoiding most pitfalls for weeks now. Seven of its past eight games have been decided by six points or fewer, with many ending in dramatic fashion.
Though the win over the Terrapins snapped a two-game losing streak that knocked the Orange from atop the national polls and ended an undefeated season, Syracuse enters Saturday’s showdown at No. 12 Virginia (24-5, 15-1) in position to win the ACC regular season title in its inaugural season in the conference.
“I can’t remember any team that we’ve had that’s had to grind it as hard as this team. I mean, not any good teams,” Boeheim said this week in a telephone interview.
This one came together in the summer, after Syracuse played an exhibition tour in Canada and Boeheim realized freshman point guard Tyler Ennis and sophomore sharpshooter Trevor Cooney could be one of the nation’s most potent back courts. Senior C.J. Fair has lived up to his preseason ACC player of the year billing and forward Jerami Grant, an All-Met from DeMatha, has brought scoring punch inside.
But the Orange still relies on Boeheim’s famed 2-3 zone. The team hasn’t scored more than 61 points in its past seven games but ranks seventh in the country in scoring defense.
Nonetheless, Syracuse has quickly become one of the ACC’s most powerful brands during its first season in the league. The Orange’s two games with Duke garnered huge television ratings — its first game against Duke on Feb. 1 was the third-most-viewed regular season men’s college basketball game in ESPN history — and Boeheim has joined Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams atop the league’s coaching hierarchy.
Boeheim was hesitant to embrace the ACC after so many years in the Big East, but he said this week the new series with the Blue Devils and the return of Notre Dame and Pittsburgh to the schedule “has really filled in” for the loss of other traditional rivals. He even liked the Italian food in Winston-Salem, N.C.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford has also given Boeheim the freedom to speak his mind, not fining him after his explosion at Duke last Saturday, which also included a rebuke of the league’s schedule makers for giving Maryland the weekend off when the Orange had to play on two days’ rest.
But both Boeheim and Fair lamented how much they would miss the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“The players have kind of taken it all in, almost like a tourist,” said Syracuse assistant coach Adrian Autry, who previously spent three years at Virginia Tech. “I think [Boeheim] is adjusting. It’s still basketball and he loves coaching basketball.”
This week, though, all anybody wanted to talk about was Boeheim’s now-infamous tirade after a disputed charging call at Duke. Not his 946 career wins or Syracuse’s chances now that March is fast approaching. Just whether he cost his team the game.
By Wednesday morning, he had said on national radio that his reaction last Saturday night ”went too far.” A few hours after that, accompanied with a joke about his golf game, Boeheim explained why he felt so bad over the phone.
“I think when you coach a team and they’re trying to do what you want them to do and they show a lot of heart, toughness and tenacity, I think you love being around them,” he said.
“This team is that kind of team, and it gives you a lot of satisfaction.”