There are certain college programs across the country can be likened to well-oiled machines rather than actual athletic programs. You can name them on one hand. The kind of elite programs that year after year produces an assembly line of college studs and potential pros and, regardless of whether they are considered to have an average or below average team in comparison to past juggernauts, once March Madness hits they become the last bunch you want to meet in a crucial game.
Most importantly, they usually have a coach that is considered an X & O’s beast with the skill to motivate and impose his style of play on most other coaches.
Syracuse recently pulled one of the biggest sports defections in modern sports history. It was definitely the most shocking since the Colts bolted from Baltimore in the dark of a snowy night and relocated to Indianapolis, leaving grown men in tears and the purity of kids in limbo.
In 2014, they entered the mighty ACC, like one of Romeo’s cousins moving in with the Capulets. They were knocked out in the NCAA’s first round and the following season they were placed on postseason suspension due to academic and recruiting infractions. This season, Syracuse has advanced to its third Elite Eight in five seasons, despite being a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament and finishing in 10th place in conference.
The Orange edged March Madness darling Gonzaga 63-60 in an exciting battle to reach the Elite Eight. The Bulldogs boasted a bevy of players from last season’s squad that reached the regional semifinal, and were favored against a Syracuse team that suffered from prolonged offenses lapses at times this season.
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Domantas Sabonis (19 points and 17 boards) and Kyle Wiltjer have been co-killers in this NCAA Tournament as multi-faceted big men with rebounding and scoring abilities. Gonzaga’s recent tourney experience was supposed to help them scrape out the win on Friday night.
Instead it was Syracuse’s senior leaders who lifted coach Boeheim to a familiar place. Michael Gbinije, a senior transfer from Duke, led the Orange with 20 points, while Ironman Trevor Cooney added 15. By transferring to Syracuse, Gbinije has been able to remain in the ACC and give the Blue Devils a closeup view of what they're missing.
With the Blue Devils sitting at home, it’s Gbinije who will have the last laugh and Boeheim who will get credit for helping him realize his potential as the team’s leading scorer (17.8 ppg).
The Orange rallied from a 57-48 deficit in the game's final six minutes and will face ACC rival Virginia with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
"I give these guys an unbelievable amount of credit,'' Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We were in a big hole with not that much time to go.''
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Syracuse went on a 9-1 run over the last three minutes of the game, prompting an elated and vindicated Boeheim to say this:
“I’m very proud of this team, they played their hearts out we've been underdog every game and they fought right through it. We will be underdogs again against Virginia. I’m most proud of the two seniors. They just battled against all odds. To overcome Wiltjer and Sabonis, tremendous players, says a lot about these guys."
Syracuse lost to Virginia in the squad's only meeting this season (73-65), but this is obviously a more confident and focused Orange squad. The Cavaliers are a very winnable draw and if anything, this NCAA tourney run is a reminder to ACC foes that no matter the conference or the penalties or the talent they put on the floor, Syracuse University is usually a team you don't want to face in the NCAA Tournament.