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SU boasts amazing season

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It’s unfortunate, but true. A team is only as good as its last game, and a season can judged not on what you did in totality, but on how you were perceived to be playing at the end of the season.

In Syracuse’s case, all that the Orange accomplished this season through a storm of controversy was simply amazing. But last weekend’s 77-70 loss to Ohio State in the NCAA East Region final in Boston will likely be the lasting image of a season for the ages.

All Jim Boeheim’s team did this season was: Post a school record 34 wins, including a record 20 straight to begin the season. Notch a Big East record-tying 17-1 mark, and capture its third outright league championship. It was ranked in the top five in the national polls all season, and ranked No. 1 in the polls for six straight weeks, tying a school record. And it earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.

If that wasn’t enough, Boeheim surpassed Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith to move into third on the all-time Division I coaching wins list, finishing the year with 890.

Yet, many will consider this year disappointing. Not for all of the records the team set, but because it was certainly talented enough to win a second national title, but came up short yet again. SU has not been to a Final Four since its magical national championship run in 2003.

“I know what people will say, that we weren’t as good as our record showed,” said SU senior Scoop Jardine after the Ohio State loss. “But for all we’ve been through, we accomplished so much. And more importantly, we did it together.”

Syracuse’s off-the-court issues have been well chronicled. It started with the Bernie Fine sexual abuse affair in November. Then there was the first Fab Melo eligibility problem in late January, the failure to monitor drug test report during the Big East Tournament, and the final suspension of Melo two days before the team’s first NCAA Tournament game for reportedly the same issues that forced him to miss three games earlier.

Through it all, the Orange played on. And kept winning. The distractions were dealt with on a daily basis, but never lingered. And they never affected team morale or how they went about their business.

Not many teams could have dealt with so much controversy in such a positive manner. They simply did not let it bother them once they stepped on the court.

Early in the season, SU shot lights out and dominated its nonconference schedule. They came from behind in both the semifinals and finals to win the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York. Then the Orange edged a very good Florida team in the Big East/SEC Challenge.

Their most impressive win may have come at North Carolina State on Dec. 17, a 15-point victory over a team that eventually made the NCAA Sweet 16.

The Big East Conference schedule, as it usually does, proved more challenging. Games become much closer. Still, they kept on winning, beginning the conference slate 8-0.

When Melo was first suspended, SU suffered its initial loss at Notre Dame. But the Orange bounced back to win at Cincinnati and home against West Virginia without the 7-foot center.

An overtime win over Georgetown, two big wins over longtime nemesis Louisville, and a come-from-behind victory at Connecticut sent the Orange into the Big East Tournament with plenty of optimism.

But after dispatching UConn in the quarterfinals, the Orange ran into a hot-shooting Cincinnati team and fell by three points in the semifinals.

Moving on to the NCAA Tournament, top-seeded SU received a mighty challenge from No. 16 seed UNC Asheville in the second round before subduing the Panthers 72-65 and avoiding becoming the first top seed ever to lose its first NCAA game.

The Orange then put together a superb second half to down Kansas State 75-59 in the third round.

Against Ohio State, SU failed to take advantage of Buckeye All-American Jared Sullinger’s first-half foul trouble. And for one of the few times all season, SU could not make a key hoop or a key defensive stand when it counted.

SU will certainly miss its two graduating seniors, Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph — not only for their on-the-court performances, but for their leadership. They kept this team focused and on balance through all that was swirling around them.

Monday’s announcement that sophomore guard Dion Waiters was leaving early for the NBA was not a surprise. The Orange will certainly miss his explosive offense and cocky demeanor.

And the fact that Melo is almost certain to follow Waiters to the pros will leave a big void in the middle, especially on defense.

Yet, next year’s edition will still be talented and deep. It will just look a bit different and be a lot more inexperienced.

Guard Brandon Triche and forward James Southerland will be the team’s only seniors. But neither is a vocal leader, and both will have to become take-charge guys as well as provide more consistent offense.

In the backcourt, Michael Carter-Williams is an emerging talent that just scratched the surface this year in limited playing time his rookie season. And redshirt Trevor Cooney may provide SU with the kind of outside shooting it hasn’t seen since Andy Rautins graduated three years ago.

C.J. Fair, who started nine games this sophomore season at forward, will likely emerge as Joseph’s successor on the front line. He had some big games this season, but Boeheim will look for more consistency.

He will be paired with either Southerland, who performed well in the post season, or Rakeem Christmas, who showed flashes of potential as a freshman in starting 31 games. Christmas needs to get stronger, but has great ability and quickness and is projected as a star down the road. Incoming 6-8 freshman Jelani Grant also figures to be in the mix.

Junior-to-be Baye Keita will likely start at center, if Christmas doesn’t move to the middle. And highly regarded freshman recruit Dajuan Coleman of Jamesville-DeWitt, at 6-10, 285 pounds, will also fit in if he can lose some weight and get in better shape.

Then there is the possibility that top five national recruit Nerlens Noel of Everett, Mass., will choose the Orange. The 6-10 shot blocker will pick between SU, Georgetown and Kentucky. He was visited by Boeheim and his staff while they were in Boston last week.

It will be an intriguing lineup next year, to be sure. But this season will likely not soon be forgotten. No matter how it ended.

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