Keeping Score

NCAA Tournament Tipoff: The Confounding Case of Syracuse Hoops

Syracuse finished its regular season with the best record in school history. But distractions, and the suspension of starting center Fab Melo, may derail the Orangemen.

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Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

Dion Waiters, center, of the Syracuse Orange drives during their quarterfinal game of the 2012 Big East Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 2012 in New York City.

Syracuse basketball matters. In economically struggling central New York, the Orangemen attract crowds to the Carrier Dome that exceed 30,000 people. The connection between the team and community is not unlike that of college football teams in the south.

In fact, Syracuse basketball helped shape sports as we know it. Back in the early 1980s, a fledgling network named ESPN offered viewers a steady diet of college basketball games. Fans got hooked on these match-ups, like the Syracuse-Georgetown battles at the dome. Once college hoops helped ESPN build a financial foundation, the network, and the 24-hour consumption of sports, exploded.

Too often, however, Syracuse basketball lets you down. On the court, Syracuse has had teams stocked with NBA talent that have lost in the early rounds of March Madness. When the Orangemen made the national championship game in 1987, freshman Derrick Coleman missed a crucial free throw late, giving Indiana’s Keith Smart a chance to hit his famous baseline jumper in the final seconds; that shot that won the Hoosiers the title. In 1991, Syracuse, led by All-American Billy Owens, was primed to win it all. But Richmond, a No. 15 seed, shocked the second-seeded Orangemen in the opening round. It was the first time a No. 15 seed ever won a tournament game. (To be fair, Syracuse made a surprise run to the 1996 title game, where the Orangemen fell to a more talented Kentucky team.)

When Syracuse finally did win it all, in 2003, current New York Knick Carmelo Anthony – no one’s idea of a model basketball citizen, as his me-first attitude just drove his coach out of town – was the star.

This year, a host of off-the-court issues have drawn unwanted attention to the team. In September, Syracuse announced that it was leaving the Big East conference – of which it’s a charter member – for the Atlantic Coast Conference, in order to boost revenues for its football team. Like so many of its peers, Syracuse followed the money. Three decades of cherished Big East basketball tradition was treated as collateral damage. Many college hoops fans still feel betrayed.

(MORE: Obama’s NCAA Basketball Bracket: Predictable and Pandering)

On a more serious note, in November two former Syracuse ball boys accused Bernie Fine, assistant to head coach Jim Boeheim for 35 years, of sexually molesting them. Boeheim’s reaction to the charge – he called the accusers liars looking for money – was callous. Boeheim later apologized and Fine was fired. Still, Syracuse finished the regular season 30-1, the best record in school history, before losing in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.

More recently, however, new troubles have emerged. According to a Yahoo! Sports report, since 2001 at least 10 Syracuse players have tested positive for a banned recreational substance or substances, but were still allowed to practice and play. They should have been suspended. The NCAA is investigating: no current players are involved.

And this week, on the eve of top-seeded Syracuse’s first round NCAA tournament game against UNC-Asheville, the school announced that seven-foot starting center Fab Melo would be suspended for the competition for academic reasons.

Syracuse deserves credit for enforcing academic standards on its players. According to NCAA statistics, however, the team has underperformed in the classroom. In October, the NCAA passed a new rule requiring that teams meet a minimum academic benchmark, which will be phased in over the next four years, or lose postseason eligibility. If this rule was on the books this year, Syracuse’s “academic progress rate” would not have met the minimum. The Orange would have been squeezed out of the tournament.

Given all the off-court distractions, and without Melo in the lineup, does Syracuse have anything left for March Madness? Syracuse basketball will always matter. But now more than ever, it’s just plain messy.

(MORE: Can Kentucky’s Revolving Door Of Freshmen Win a National Title)