SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The subject is not broachable these days within the echoing corridors of the cavernous Carrier Dome. The Syracuse University basketball program is not accustomed to being under the type of scrutiny that accompanies allegations of wrongdoing, so perhaps it is not surprising the school's players, coaches and administrators are rather tight-lipped and short-tempered whenever they are asked about the recent controversies.
Coach Jim Boeheim's standard reply about the charges that the school broke several NCAA rules -- as outlined in a series of stories by the Syracuse Post-Standard that followed a seven-month investigation: "We're just playing basketball right now."
The eighth-ranked Orangemen (16-2) come to town tonight to face Georgetown at Capital Centre. When you ask Boeheim about the effect the turmoil has had on his team, the answer is: "We're just playing basketball right now." On many days, Boeheim can manage to blame the media for much of what ails college athletics within a single 15-minute news conference, but he does not even bother to use that argument on this topic.
His players' stance is similar.
"I don't know why you guys want to ask a question like that," Syracuse's star forward, Billy Owens, told reporters after a recent game when he was asked if the controversy was a distraction. "We don't think about that stuff. . . . We just play the games."
One of the few people willing to comment publicly on the Syracuse situation, in fact, is Nevada-Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian. Just after the Post-Standard's series began, the Orangemen beat Towson State by a mere 78-73 -- a fact that greatly amused Tarkanian, who had just finished a 13-year legal struggle with the NCAA only to see a letter of inquiry detailing 29 new charges arrive a few weeks later.
"I see that Syracuse has a little controversy, and they go out and almost get beat by Towson State," Tarkanian said then. "Isn't that what they're called, Towson State? Around here, if we go one day without controversy, it's like New Year's Eve."
Later Tarkanian contended: "I guess Syracuse just doesn't know how to handle a little heat, do they?"
Indeed, the Orangemen are in unfamiliar territory. No Big East Conference program ever has been the subject of an official investigation by the NCAA. Syracuse may be targeted by such a probe, although the school has not yet received notification of an official inquiry.
The school, however, has launched an internal probe. The investigation is being supervised by a pair of attorneys from the firm that serves as the university's legal counsel, and they reportedly are being assisted by two sports lawyers from a Kansas City firm that has extensive experience representing schools alleged to have committed NCAA violations.
The university also has appointed a five-member faculty committee to oversee the investigation. The Big East may be the nation's most image-conscious league, and to be found guilty of any NCAA rules violations almost certainly would make Syracuse the conference's outcast.
"We won't just look the other way like other leagues around the country might" if the Orangemen suffer sanctions, one Big East athletic director said. "If what has been said about them is true, we'll turn up the pressure for some very forceful corrective actions to be taken. This is something our league won't stand for, no matter how much weight Syracuse carries within the conference. We won't allow ourselves to be tainted."
The charges against Syracuse are serious. The Post-Standard, whose investigation was spurred by the book "Raw Recruits," reported that the school allowed players to receive merchandise, the cut-rate use of cars and cash gifts from boosters -- including Dave Bing, an alumnus and NBA Hall of Fame guard.
The newspaper also quoted a former player as saying that one of his grades was changed so that he could remain academically eligible and play in an important Big East game during the 1986-87 season, when the Orangemen advanced to the NCAA championship against Indiana.
Under Boeheim -- a former Syracuse player and a coach at the school since 1969 -- the Orangemen have grown from a regional power into one of the most successful programs in the nation. Syracuse has won 26 or more games in each of the past five seasons, has been nationally ranked continuously since March 1984 and has been to postseason play in each of Boeheim's 14 seasons as head coach.
But for now, Owens may be the country's best all-around player, guard Adrian Autry is among the nation's best freshmen and junior swingman David Johnson suddenly has blossomed as a dependable scorer.
Syracuse has beaten 10 straight ranked opponents at the Carrier Dome, and in a year when no team outside of Las Vegas seems overly imposing, the Orangemen are a legitimate Final Four threat.
Yet these are testy, uncertain times for the Orangemen. Boeheim had an on-court yelling match with center LeRon Ellis last month and -- despite Owens's insistence that he has no plans to forego his senior season and enter the NBA draft -- the professional megabucks might prove too enticing to pass up.
Now there is the cloud of alleged impropriety hanging overhead as well. "We're just trying to keep focused on basketball," Johnson said. "It hasn't always been easy."