In its first ACC basketball season, 1991-92, Florida State finished second to Duke in the regular-season standings. Fourteen years later, Boston College finished third behind Duke and North Carolina in its maiden voyage.
Might Syracuse exceed those auspicious debuts next season as it moves from the Big East?
Projections this far out are dicey. Many current players have yet to declare NBA intentions. Freshmen rarely are dependable.
But given its roster, recruiting and coaching, the Orange figure to challenge, among others, North Carolina, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina State atop its new conference.
Syracuse (29-9) faces Big East rival Marquette (26-8) in Saturday’s NCAA East Regional final. This marks the Orange’s second consecutive Elite Eight appearance – Ohio State beat Syracuse in last year’s regional final -- its sixth in Jim Boeheim’s 37 seasons. The 2003 national champion, Syracuse has earned 30 NCAA bids under Boeheim, who trails only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in Division I coaching victories (919).
So the Orange (29-9) have coaching and tradition covered, though the dark cloud of an NCAA investigation hovers.
Personnel? Guard Brandon Triche and forward James Southerland are the only seniors among Syracuse’s top nine players, and they average a combined 27.2 points and 8.7 rebounds.
But sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams, the Big East’s leader in assists and steals, could well turn pro early. He certainly enhanced his stock in Thursday’s 61-50 East semifinal victory over Indiana with 24 points, five rebounds and four steals.
Junior forward C.J. Fair leads the Orange in scoring (14.4 points per game) and rebounding (7.0) but does not have Carter-Williams’ NBA allure. If he returns to team with the likes of Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman, Jerami Grant and Baye Moussa Keita, Syracuse’s frontcourt will be beyond formidable.
Guard will be the question. Incoming freshman Tyler Ennis, who also drew offers from Louisville, Cincinnati and UCLA, figures to start at the point. Michael Gbinije, a transfer from Duke and graduate of Richmond’s Benedictine High, is the probable wing guard.
Then there’s Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense. Big East rivals are accustomed to it. ACC programs are not, and as Indiana discovered Thursday, the first experience can be unpleasant.
Ranked No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy, the Hoosiers had season-lows in points and shooting percentage (33.3) against the Orange. Also, they matched a season-high with 19 turnovers.
The move to the ACC and demise of the Big East is difficult for Boeheim, who’s worked in the latter since its inception 34 years ago.
“It's remarkable that you could start a league and it could be good right away, like the Big East was,” Boeheim said Friday. “We had the right schools, the right players came in early with Patrick (Ewing) and Chris (Mullin) and Pearl (Washington), all those guys came in right away. The coaches [Georgetown’s John Thompson, St. John’s Lou Carnesecca, Boeheim] were there right away. (Founder) Dave Gavitt saw it, none of us saw it, we weren't that smart. He was right, and it's been an unbelievable 34 years, history of the league, over that 34-year period it's been as good as any league. You can easily make that argument.
“It's sad the way it was almost inevitable that the football schools would need to get with football schools, and I think it will work for the basketball schools now that they're going to get together, and they will have a really good basketball league. I think that's for the best. I think it will work out, and we have a great challenge going to what will be a tremendous basketball league (in the ACC).”
And although many have hypothesized that Boeheim, 68, would rather retire than change conferences, he certainly doesn’t sound like a man eager for a permanent offseason.
“I'm hoping the season lasts forever because I've got to go to Disney [Boeheim has young children] as soon as this season is over,” he said, “so I hope we keep winning, I swear. I would like to keep playing all year. There is nothing worse than doing that! I can't even go play golf anymore. …
“I'm coachin' next year, I kid around a little bit and everybody gets crazy when I do, so I'm not going to kid around about it anymore, I'm coaching next year, thrilled, got a great challenge, looking forward to it.”
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