Senior guard Trevor Cooney keeps using the word “interesting” to describe Syracuse’s season.
Given everything that has happened to the Orange on its way to the most improbable Final Four appearance in longtime coach Jim Boeheim’s career, you’ll have to forgive Cooney for being unintentionally vague.
Leo Tolstoy would be at a loss for words to describe the Orange’s almost completely unpredictable journey to Houston for a national semifinal date with North Carolina on Saturday night.
“This has been a very interesting year,” Cooney said after the 10th-seeded Orange’s 68-62 comeback win over top-seeded Virginia in the Midwest regional final last Sunday in Chicago.
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“I mean, we’ve obviously been through a lot.”
This isn’t a “one of the last teams in the NCAA field makes an unexpected run” kind of story.
This isn’t a “national program stumbles through the regular season, then turns it on in the tournament” kind of story.
This isn’t a “team overcomes the NCAA mess it made and succeeds” kind of story.
This isn’t a “team makes one improbable comeback after another to reach the Final Four” kind of story.
This isn’t a “precocious freshmen step up and lead veteran team to glory” story.
It’s all of the above.
The unconventional path for Boeheim’s fifth Final Four team started in March 2014, when Syracuse was in Raleigh to play N.C. State in the last game of the regular season.
On March 6, the NCAA issued its punishment of the Orange program for academic transgressions over an eight-year period starting in 2004.
After finding a “lack of institutional control,” the NCAA upheld a self-imposed postseason ban by the school, docked the program 12 scholarships over a four-year period and suspended Boeheim for nine ACC games.
The next day, the Orange lost 71-57 at N.C. State to close the season with five losses in seven games and an 18-13 overall record.
This season, with Boeheim, in his 40th season with his alma mater, on the bench, the Orange picked up valuable wins over Connecticut and Texas A&M in a holiday tournament in the Bahamas in November.
Boeheim lost his appeal with the NCAA in December but was allowed to serve his suspension for nine games starting with a Dec. 5 trip to Georgetown.
The first game without the hall of fame coach, the Orange lost 79-72 to Georgetown. After a home win over Colgate, it suffered an 84-72 setback at St. John’s on Dec. 13, the most baffling loss by an ACC team this season.
St. John’s went on to finish 7-24 under first-year coach Chris Mullin, good for No. 246 in the RPI.
It didn’t get much better for Syracuse when ACC play started. The Orange opened 0-3 without Boeheim and then lost to 84-73 to UNC at home in Syracuse, N.Y., on Jan. 9 in Boeheim’s first game back.
“It’s obviously been a difficult year for them to go through everything that’s happened,” Boeheim said before the tournament started.
Syracuse went 4-5 with assistant and designated “coach-in-waiting” Mike Hopkins in charge. The time without Boeheim wasn’t a complete waste, though, Cooney said.
“I think we learned a lot when Coach was gone, and I think we’ve grown as a team a lot, and I think that’s helping us now,” Cooney said before last week’s Sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga.
And what did Syracuse learn?
“I think we learned how important he is,” Cooney said of Boeheim.
Syracuse did recover with Boeheim back on the bench to score important ACC wins at Duke (Jan. 18) and at home over Notre Dame (Jan. 28).
But after a 75-61 win at Boston College on Feb. 14, the Orange lost four of its last five ACC games and then lost to Pittsburgh, for a third time, in the ACC tournament.
Syracuse went into Selection Sunday with the same ACC record (9-9) as a year ago and nearly the same overall record (19-13). At No. 72 in the RPI, and with the late losses, there was a question of whether Syracuse would get into the NCAA field.
The protracted selection show on CBS didn’t quell any of the players’ fears. Cooney said he thought Syracuse would be in one of the “First Four” games as one of the last at-large teams in the field.
He got worried when those teams were revealed by CBS and Syracuse wasn’t one of them. Like most Syracuse fans, Cooney was worried when he saw Pittsburgh as a No. 10 seed – and correctly figured the Orange would not be seeded higher than a team it went 0-3 against.
“I’m thinking ‘what’s going on now?’ but then we finally heard our name called,” Cooney said. “It was definitely a big relief because this is a special thing to be a part of.”
Leading scorer Michael Gbinije, a fifth-year senior and transfer from Duke, knew the Orange were hungry for a chance to play in the NCAA tournament after sitting out last season.
“Especially after the season we had last year, this is just a gift for us,” Gbinije said before Syracuse’s first-round win over Dayton. “Really, we’re happy to be in and we just want to take full advantage of it.”
The Orange has done just that with the help of breakout performances by freshman guard Malachi Richardson and freshman forward Tyler Lydon.
Richardson had 21 points in a 70-51 win over Dayton in the first round. Lydon picked up the slack in the second round with 14 points, seven rebounds and six blocks in a win over upstart Middle Tennessee, who had upset No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round.
Gbinije and Cooney, the senior stars, had 20 and 15 points to lead a comeback win over Gonzaga, which led by as many as 11 points in the Sweet 16.
Richardson, a long, athletic 6-foot-6 guard, matched his season-high with 23 points in the regional final win over Virginia.
The Cavaliers led by 16 in the second half before a full-court press, a departure from Boeheim’s signature matchup zone, led to a furious rally.
After Boeheim cut down the nets in Chicago, he was his usual blunt and honest self.
“I thought we deserved to be in the tournament, but certainly I didn’t … I wasn’t planning on getting to the Final Four,” Boeheim said.
No one could have predicted such an “interesting” development, but the Orange will certainly take it.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio