Ed. Note: check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.
And we’re back with the second installment of our Team of the 2000s feature. Just to refresh the schedule we anticipate, we’ll be putting up #10-#6 this week, and #5-#1 next week. Yesterday we picked Maryland as our tenth selection (over Gonzaga, Pitt, and several others) and we’re declaring today that the ninth best program of the 2000s is none other than the Syracuse Orange… let the flames begin.
#9 – Syracuse
Overview. This selection will be one of our more controversial top 10 selections. How can a team miss the NCAA tournament 3 of the 10 years of the decade and still manage to sneak into the top 10 when perennial Sweet 16 teams get left on the outside looking in? Simple. Win a national title. Ok. It’s a little more complex than that, but in my eyes to be an elite program you have to win a national title (or at least come agonizingly close as a subsequent team on this list has done). Are we overvaluing that “One Shining Moment?” Perhaps, but to even the most hardcore college basketball fans like ourselves the eras are defined by the champions not the near-misses (with potential exceptions like the Jameer Nelson St. Joseph’s team). In this case, the Carmelo Anthony/Hakim Warrick/Gerry McNamara team outweighs the 3 NIT bids – two of those years were controversial snubs and the other was a late-season nosedive the year before Carmelo showed up in upstate New York. Beyond that the Orangemen have made two Sweet 16 appearances to go along with two Big East Conference tournament titles (in years they flamed out in the 1st round of the NCAA tournament). Despite missing the NCAA tournament two of the last three years, the Orangemen have shown signs of a resurgence with last year’s Sweet 16 appearance that followed their epic 6-OT win against UConn in the Big East Tournament and the addition of what appears to be a strong recruiting class.
Pinnacle. As I noted before, the 2003 national title is the clear-cut choice here. Before Kevin Durant and Kevin Beasley, there was Carmelo Anthony. While Anthony may not have put up as spectacular numbers as the other two in his freshman season (and consequently didn’t win any national POYs from any major media sources – RTC didn’t exist at the time or he would have at least one award), he does have the one thing that neither of those two freshman picked up in their layovers in college: a national title. The 2003 Orangemen team will never be mentioned among the all-time great teams, but they rebounded from an opening-game loss to Memphis to finish a very respectable 30-5. Jim Boeheim started the same 5 for all 35 games: two freshmen (Anthony and McNamara), two sophomores (Warrick and Craig Forth), and one senior (Kueth Duany). Despite how history will remember this as “Melo’s team”, the Orangemen did feature three other double-digit scorers. In the NCAA tournament, Syracuse was only seriously challenged twice: once against a Marquis Daniels-led Auburn team staging a furious comeback in the Sweet 16 (a game I attended) and the championship game where Warrick blocked a potential game-tying 3 by Michael Lee in the waning seconds to give Boeheim his first and only national title to date.
Tailspin. 2008. After following up the 2003 title with a Sweet 16 trip (minus Melo), the Orangemen were upset in the 1st round in back-to-back years (2004 and 2005) including infamously to the Taylor Coppenrath-led Vermont Catamounts. Things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the Orangemen, right? Wrong. Try back-to-back Selection Sundays in 2007 and 2008 where Jim Boeheim’s crew was the proverbial “last team left out”. Following that 2008 season, there were several vocal critics in the upstate New York area who were calling for Boeheim’s head.
Outlook for 2010s: Grade: B+. It’s amazing how quickly things have turned around for Boeheim. While the Orangemen lose a lot in the backcourt (Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf) along with Paul Harris and Kristof Ongenaut, they are absolutely loaded on the inside where they boast returnees Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson along with 4-star recruit DaShonte Riley and Iowa State transfer (and Big 12 All-Rookie selection) Wesley Johnson. That alone should be enough for the Orangemen to compete in a relative down year in the Big East with DeJuan Blair and Hasheem Thabeet no longer roaming the paint. Syracuse won’t contend for a national title next year, but their fans aren’t thinking about the 2010 Final Four. They are thinking about cutting down the nets in 2011 when they will be bringing a loaded freshman class to the NCAA tournament with Fab Melo, Dion Waiters, and C.J. Fair. While this class can’t match the one that John Calipari stole brought with him to Kentucky, it’s an impressive haul for Boeheim. The question is whether Boeheim can continue this kind of recruiting success after they start reading the weather forecast for Syracuse in the middle of winter (actually, that’s never hurt him before, his players can’t read… we kid, we kid)…