INDIANAPOLIS — Syracuse straggled into the NCAA men’s tournament, a lowly No. 11 seed, and so you assumed that meant an early exit for Jim Boeheim and his team, right?
You must be new here.
The Orange toppled third-seeded West Virginia 75-72 Sunday night to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 next weekend. At this point, you might as well go ahead and pencil Boeheim and Syracuse in for the Final Four — or at least the Elite Eight — because that’s where we’re headed.
Five years ago, there was an addendum to the unwritten rules of March that said when Boeheim takes a Syracuse team that muddled through the regular season to the tournament, it morphs into a juggernaut. That, of course, was the year the Orange skidded into the tournament as a 10 seed, considered worthy of a bid by almost nobody but Boeheim, and went to the Final Four. (His fifth, for those keeping track.) The next year, Syracuse was an 11 seed and got to the Sweet 16.
Now here we are.
Syracuse getting in wasn’t as big a surprise this year as it was in 2016, but the Orange definitely had their blemishes. The two losses to Pitt, and a loss to Duke. But they put themselves on the right side of the bubble with three consecutive wins — against North Carolina, Clemson and North Carolina State — before losing to Virginia in the ACC tournament.
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But getting in was all Syracuse needed to do; the Boeheim magic would take care of the rest. It’s doubly strong this year, too, because his father’s March wizardry has clearly rubbed off on Buddy Boeheim. After scoring 30 points to lead Syracuse past sixth-seeded San Diego State on Friday night, the younger Boeheim poured in another 25 against West Virginia, with all but two of his field goals coming from long range.
What makes all of this so mesmerizing is there’s no good explanation for it. This is Boeheim’s 45th season at Syracuse, his 35th trip to the NCAA Tournament, and it’s not as if he switches up his game plan come March. He’s going to run his 2-3 zone and someone — or someones — is going to develop a blazing hot hand.
And yet, there’s not a damn thing anyone seems able to do about it.
That patented 2-3 zone becomes basketball’s version of the Bermuda triangle, swallowing up offenses and aspirations alike. It’s not as if West Virginia didn’t know it was coming. The teams played each other for decades in the old Big East, and Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins and Boeheim go back almost as far. But aside from a five-minute span late in the second half, when Sean McNeil went off for 12 points, all on 3-pointers, the Mountaineers seemed completely befuddled by Syracuse.
Buddy Boeheim wasn’t parked on the bench all season, either. He’s scored 20-plus in seven of the last nine games, and seems to have found Steph Curry’s range. Yet West Virginia couldn’t contain him in the second half, when he went off for 21 points on 7 of 11 shooting.
There’s one other element that is completely out of Syracuse’s control but just so happens to be falling in its favor: the rest of the bracket. Top-seeded Illinois was taken out earlier Sunday by eighth-seeded Loyola-Chicago, while fifth-seeded Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson are already home. There’s a chance a couple of the other high seeds will be cleared out by the end of the night, too.
It’s inexplicable, the hold Boeheim and his mediocre teams have on March. Don’t try to understand it. Just enjoy it.
Follow Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour