Jim Boeheim is happy.
This will be Boeheim’s fourth trip to the Final Four as Syracuse head coach and fifth overall (he was an assistant on the 1975 Final Four team). Syracuse will face fellow No. 4 seed Michigan on Saturday, April 6 to get a chance to play either Wichita State or Louisville in the championship game.
Amid the controversy of an alleged NCAA investigation and some flare ups with a few reporters, he flashed a grin while holding the East Regional Championship trophy that let the world know he is enjoying this run.
How could he not?
His team stumbled into the postseason, losing four of its final five games, but a run to the finals of the Big East tournament reenergized the Orange.
Getting back to basics, which means playing an excellent 2-3 zone defense, has stifled the Orange’s opponents to the tune of allowing just under 46 points per game in the tournament.
Marquette’s 39 points were the fewest points scored in a regional final since the shot clock was first used in 1986.
Syracuse is also outscoring its opponents by an average of 20 points per game.
This all adds up to a happy coach Boeheim.
But not a content one.
Boeheim is 3-0 all time in the Final Four and finally got his first national title in 2003. That third attempt, which was led by Carmelo Anthony and company as a No. 3 seed seemed to finally cement Boeheim’s position among the elite coaches of college basketball.
His previous two attempts were a heartbreaking loss to Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in 1987 and a hard-fought loss to Rick Pitino’s NBA-caliber Kentucky squad in 1996. With the losses, Boeheim developed the reputation of being a great coach who couldn’t win the big one.
That all changed in 2003.
Boeheim had suddenly won over a multitude of his critics as his reputation changed from whiner to winner.
In 2005, Boeheim was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame and it seemed that no matter what happened for the rest of his coaching career, he could ride off into the sunset with the championship he was discredited for so long for not having and a place in the Hall of Fame
For some in the media, however, the question remains: how great a coach is Boeheim?
His 920 wins rank second all time in NCAA Division I history behind only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (957). He’s won 52 NCAA tournament games and is two wins away from a second national title, which would make him only the 14th head coach to boast multiple championships.
Coach Boeheim would tell you that if he lost that 2003 championship or if he won each of his three appearances in the finals, he would still be the same coach.
He would be correct.
If Keith Smart didn’t hit a 16-foot jump shot over Howard Triche, and Syracuse won its first NCAA tournament title, Boeheim would have achieved the pinnacle of success every team strives for, but it wouldn’t have meant he was a better coach that day. Just more fortunate.
Boeheim had nothing to do with then-freshman Derrick Coleman missing the front end of a one-and-one, but had Coleman made his free throws and sealed the win for Syracuse, Boeheim would have been praised, but there’s no coaching move that would have made this happen.
Essentially, Boeheim is the same coach with or without the national title. He has just been fortunate enough to win one.
With his name forever enshrined in Springfield and his 2-3 zone being the stuff of legend, there is nothing more that Boeheim has to prove as a coach.
That what makes this Final Four run so special.
Boeheim’s legacy among coaches and players is solid. This is evident by Krzyzewski choosing Boeheim as his assistant for Team USA in 2006 and going on to win Olympic gold in the subsequent 2008 and 2012 Summer Games.
It is the local gentry that needs to be impressed.
Earlier this season, after Boeheim won game No. 900, CBS’s Doug Gottlieb gave praise to Boeheim during a “CBS Sports Minute” as a good coach, but would not go so far as to call him a great coach. He broke down the reasons he didn’t believe Boeheim was at the peak of coaching, which included only making five Elite Eight Appearances, the fact that no one copies his coaching style and mentioned that his players don’t generally succeed in the pros.
Gottlieb finished by saying, “I'm not saying he's not very good, but he's obviously not great."
In his classic dry manner, Boeheim put it in perspective on “The Afternoon Drive” with Alex Plavin on The Score 1260 saying:
With him [Gottlieb], he might not consider anybody great. I don't know what he thinks. But being a good coach is pretty good. I don't know what standard...if he has a hundred great coaches and I'm just good, then I might be a little upset. If he has five or six great coaches then me, then I'm not too upset with that.
For Boeheim’s supporters, the proof is already in the pudding. For his detractors, making this fourth run to the Final Four adds a little something to his legacy.
This team was on life support going into the Big East tournament, leading Gottlieb’s contemporary at CBS, Seth Davis, to be one of those detractors in his breakdown of the NCAA tournament. Davis predicted that Syracuse was vulnerable and would lose in the round of 64 to the Montana Grizzlies.
An 81-34 decimation of Montana had Davis eating his words.
An impenetrable defense against California, Indiana and Marquette is having a great deal more of his detractors rethinking their stand.
The thing about legacies is that they are relative to who is remembering them.
Syracuse fans will always remember Boeheim as a consummate winner and their greatest ambassador.
Syracuse haters, maybe not so much, but taking his fourth team to the Final Four in four different decades is going a long way towards calming the hate.
Well, maybe not the hate, but the respect has certainly grown.
Perhaps that is the legacy that Boeheim has now given himself: loved by some, hated by others, respected by all.
Now that’s a legacy even coach Boeheim could be happy with.