When attempting to define the royalty of college basketball, it seems that a consensus top six always emerges, in no particular order: Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, and UCLA. All have been successful in multiple eras, and other than Duke, all have won NCAA titles under more than one coach. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Syracuse is on the very next tier, and perhaps no coach has a stronger connection to his school than Jim Boeheim has to Syracuse. Boeheim is a Syracuse lifer. He played at Syracuse, graduating in 1966. He worked as an assistant at Syracuse from 1969-1976, and became head coach in 1976. I'm not aware of any other prominent coach who has played and coached only at one school. Syracuse in making its 36th NCAA Tournament appearance. Boeheim has been a player, an assistant, or a head coach for all but one of those appearances. He's one of only 15 coaches to reach three or more NCAA championship games. Boeheim isn't particularly likable, and has often been criticized for not doing more with the talent on hand, but there is little doubt that he is among the most accomplished coaches in the history of the game. There doesn't appear to be much behind the rumors that Boeheim will retire after this season, and so it appears he will be leading the Orange into their new existence in the ACC.
Thursday's regional semifinal will be only the fifth meeting between Indiana and Syracuse, and the second in the NCAA Tournament. Boeheim was the head coach for all of them. There has never been a regularly scheduled game between Indiana and Syracuse. One meeting was in the NCAA Tournament (you all know which one), another was in the preseason NIT in 1988-89, and two were in Maui. Syracuse has won all of the prior meetings except for the one that mattered most:
3/30/87 W 74-73 New Orleans
11/23/88 L 78-102 New York City
11/25/90 L 74-77 Lahaina, Maui
11/25/98 L 63-76 Lahaina, Maui
I'm not sure what else can be said about the 1987 NCAA title game, one of the most memorable in the history of the event, that hasn't already been said. I was 13 years old at the time and did not know much about Syracuse at all. At the time, Bob Knight had been so successful at IU that it simply was assumed that the Hoosiers would win a championship every few years (that's what made the 1993 loss to Kansas in the regional final so galling: Alan Henderson or not, it was our turn!). I'm not sure that my narcissistic teenage self really grasped that there was another fan base profoundly affected by that game until a few years later, when I read some sort of retrospective news article quoting Sean McDonough and other semi-famous Syracuse alumni lamenting how awful a moment that was. This piece from SB Nation's Syracuse site provides some insight into the bitterness, which was somewhat mitigated by the 2003 championship, but not completely. And it was an awful way to lose.
At that point, winning titles was nearly routine for Bob Knight, but the devastation on Jim Boeheim's face is obvious at the postgame handshake. I'm not sure how much difference this history will make for Thursday's game. None of the players on either side was alive in 1987, although Brandon Triche is the
son nephew of former Syracuse great and 1987 team member Howard Triche. Still, after all these years, it's still the same head coach at Syracuse, and I'll be interested to hear what he has to say about whether it still matters. If he says it doesn't, I won't believe him.