PITTSBURGH — As Jim Boeheim walked across the court Saturday afternoon at Consol Energy Center to do his obligatory postgame TV interview, he let out a deep breath, stuck his hands in his pockets and looked for all the world like someone who had just spent most of the day in a dentist’s chair.
A few minutes later, when the news conference moderator informed reporters that Syracuse’s 75-59 victory over Kansas State in the round of 32 gave Boeheim 47 NCAA tournament victories — tying him with John Wooden on the all-time list — Boeheim sighed and shook his head.
“Yeah he did it in 10 years; it took 29 for me,” he said. “That’s about right for me.”
If Eeyore was a basketball coach he would be Jim Boeheim. Especially these days.
In private, Boeheim is about as bright, funny and engaging as anyone in basketball. He has also put together coaching numbers that are astounding, regardless of how many years it has taken him to achieve them. Saturday’s victory was the 889th of his career and put him in the Sweet 16 for the 16th time. The only coaches in history with more wins than Boeheim are Mike Krzyzewski at 927 and Bob Knight at 902.
What’s more, the argument can be made that at the age of 67, Boeheim is a better coach now than he’s ever been. This Syracuse team is 33-2 and, as Boeheim points out, has found different ways to win all season.
None of that, though, is the focal point when people talk about Syracuse right now, and it hasn’t been since late last fall when Bernie Fine, Boeheim’s longtime assistant and close friend, was forced to resign after being accused of sexual abuse by two former Syracuse ballboys.
It is fair to say that Boeheim, in spite of all his team’s victories, has had very few moments of peace since then. He came out swinging at Fine’s accusers and then had to apologize, even though he no doubt still believes every word he said. Now Boeheim is completely gagged by his lawyers on the subject, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t waging battles on other fronts.
He’s had to answer questions about a report that a number of ex-Syracuse players tested positive for recreational drugs several years ago and were never subjected to the school’s rules on drug use. Then starting center Fab Melo was declared ineligible for the second time this season just before the NCAA tournament began.
A day later, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, talking about NCAA graduation rates, appeared to single out Boeheim when he mentioned that one college coach had called the idea of penalizing schools for failing to graduate players “completely nuts.”
Boeheim took umbrage with Duncan’s comments on Friday — saying he had called two elements of the graduation rate standards nuts, but not the idea itself — and was also upset with a USA Today story that said if the new standards were in place this season, Syracuse would not have been eligible to play. “Not true,” Boeheim said. “They’re using outdated statistics. If they’d have called us we could have told them that.”
And of course, there was the controversial ending to Thursday’s first-round victory over UNC Asheville. Boeheim didn’t mind seeing several thousand replays of a pass that clearly went off Brandon Triche’s hands but was awarded to Syracuse anyway — although he did say he thought Triche had been fouled. He did mind several TV commentators criticizing a lane-violation call made against Asheville at a critical moment in the game.
“TV commentators do a disservice to the game when they say, ‘You can’t call that,’ ” Boeheim said, standing in the bowels of the building 45 minutes after his team’s win on Saturday. No one had raised the issue. Boeheim did. “It’s a rule. You have to call it. A violation is a violation.”
Saturday was a good day for Boeheim. After struggling to a 25-24 lead at halftime even though Kansas State shot just 8 of 34, the Orange pulled away in the second half for an easy win — far easier than one might have expected after Thursday’s escape from the ignominy of being the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed.
“We made some shots for the first time in a while,” Boeheim said. “The game becomes pretty simple when you make shots. Of course, the key was our defense.”
The key for Syracuse is always its defense, the remarkably elastic 2-3 zone it has played since 1996 — when Boeheim took a team picked to do very little in the preseason all the way to the national championship game. Even without Melo in the middle, the Orange are still a collection of long arms and legs inside and still have nine players who can come in and play effectively.
Boeheim realized early this season that this was probably the deepest team he has ever coached. He even changed his practice routine, working his first five and his second five alternatively against his third five — a group that includes a redshirt and four walk-ons. “That third group is in really good shape,” he said, almost smiling for a moment. “I’ve never done it that way before but change is good — especially when you’re getting older.”
There’s been a lot of talk about whether Boeheim will just walk away after this season, especially if his team wins the championship or reaches the Final Four. His close friend Krzyzewski — who is no doubt a lot unhappier than Boeheim, at least this weekend — doesn’t think there is any way that will happen.
“They’ll have to drag Jim off the sideline,” he said recently. “He’s not going anywhere. He loves basketball and he loves coaching.
Boeheim disagrees with even with that. “I have never enjoyed coaching,” he said. “I hope someday if I need an operation, when that doctor walks into the operating room he’s not there to enjoy himself.”
What about after the operation is a success?
For a moment he did actually smile. “If you have success, then you’re satisfied,” he said. “That’s completely different.” He paused for a moment. “I guess if you win a lot and you get a lot of satisfaction from the wins then maybe — maybe — you can enjoy it just a little.”
He was laughing by now, something he hasn’t done much the last few months. The bus was waiting. He walked down the hall and out the door. Another victory was in his rear-view mirror.
No doubt there are plenty of battles still ahead.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.