The Syracuse Orange got zero points in the preseason Associated Press poll. And zero points in the Associated Press poll that was released the day after Selection Sunday. And they lost five of their last six games before this NCAA Tournament started. And they were down 11 points to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. And they were down 16 points to Virginia in the Elite Eight. And yet they’re still on their way to Houston, to the fifth Final Four of Jim Boeheim’s career. And how in the world did this happen?
Seriously, how did this happen?
We were, just two days ago, only four wins by the favorites from having four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. But only one No. 1 seed won its Elite Eight game. So only one No. 1 seed will be in Houston. And that one (North Carolina) will be joined by two No. 2 seeds (Villanova, Oklahoma) and the first No. 10 seed to ever make the Final Four.
Yes, Syracuse made it.
And that really is the story of this Final Four — how a school that A) was banned from last season’s NCAA Tournament because of rules violations, B) is still on probation, C) finished tied for ninth in the ACC with a 9-9 league record, and D) had a 72 RPI on Selection Sunday, and was among the most debated 36 at-large schools, is somehow headed to the Final Four after beating a team (Virginia) that finished seven spots better in the ACC.
The only people who could’ve possibly seen this coming were Syracuse supporters blinded by their fandom, and, I bet, even they likely had a hard time seeing this coming. In a word, amazing. And here are four other storylines heading into this Final Four:
1. BUDDY HIELD
Kentucky’s Anthony Davis won the Wooden Award and played in the Final Four in 2012. Michigan’s Trey Burke did the same in 2013. Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky did the same in 2015. Which means Buddy Hield will become the fourth Wooden Award winner in the past five years to play in the Final Four — assuming, of course, Hield wins the Wooden.
Either way, Buddy will serve as the star of this Final Four.
Hield is averaging 29.3 points in the NCAA Tournament and coming off of a 37-point effort in Saturday’s win over Oregon. The senior guard will clearly be the biggest individual attraction in Houston — outside of Kendrick Lamar, perhaps. He’s must-see TV, at this point.
2. COACHING STAR POWER
You don’t have to be a great coach to make the Final Four. But it helps. And this year’s batch of coaches all qualify. North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim are already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. I think Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger will someday join them. And I could envision Villanova’s Jay Wright also getting there — especially considering he’s already notched nearly 500 career wins.
Wright, 54, is averaging roughly 32 wins a season since the Big East broke up. At that pace, he could reach 800 career wins by the age of 64 and, in the process, earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. So we could look back on this Final Four someday, and recognize it as a rare Final Four that featured four Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers — plus Buddy.
3. ROY’S FAREWELL?
I’m just as sure Roy Williams will scoff at the question as I am certain the question will be asked. But there’s no sense in hiding from it, and the question is this: Will Roy Williams retire if UNC wins this national title? Or even if UNC doesn’t win this national title?
Answer: I don’t know.
But what I do know is that it’s a topic that’ll be discussed.
I was with Williams at the United States Naval Academy back in November, the day before UNC’s season-opening win over Temple, and the 65 year-old made it clear to me that coaching is more physically taxing for him than it’s ever been, and that the stress of the ongoing NCAA case against UNC has taken a toll. (You can read that column here.) I can’t imagine either of those things have changed in the past four months. So there’s a ride-off-into-the-sunset scenario that features Williams cutting nets one more time, and then limping away before UNC is hit with whatever punishment is headed its way.
Of course, win or lose, Roy Williams could also return next season.
Again, that’s up to him.
And he’ll decide on his own timetable.
But the questions are coming this week.
And it’ll be interesting to see how he handles such inquiries.
4. ON PROBATION VS. UNDER INVESTIGATION
That’s the way my pal Pat Forde labeled the Syracuse-North Carolina national semifinal, and my colleague Jon Solomon has touched on this awkward situation already, too.
Syracuse, of course, is on probation because of a variety of rules violations, including academic improprieties. And North Carolina’s NCAA case that’s rooted in what’s been described as “systemic academic fraud” should go before the Committee on Infractions later this year. These two schools have made countless headlines for being programs connected to scandals, and they’ll create even more literally every day this week.
As for me …
I don’t have anything new to say about it, really — except that it highlights, once again, just how silly it is that we’ve created a system where institutions of higher learning are tied to big-business basketball teams coached by multimillionaires whose goal is to win a tournament that’s worth a billion dollars to television networks. If we could blow it up and start over, I’m confident we would. But, at this point, it just is what it is.
And it’s not like we haven’t been through this before.
Here’s the opening paragraph of my column from the 2011 national title game:
An athletic director (Gene Smith) from a school (Ohio State) whose football coach (Jim Tressel) will be suspended five games next season for violating NCAA rules watched a team on probation (Connecticut) win the national championship, then handed the trophy to a basketball coach (Jim Calhoun) who will be suspended three games next season for illegal recruiting.
I mean, is this any worse than that?
So, yeah, On Probation vs. Under Investigation is a story.
And it should be a story.
But UNC-Syracuse isn’t a revelation about the screwy side of college athletics.
UNC-Syracuse is merely a reminder.