ATLANTA -- James Southerland sat in his apartment alone, watching his teammates on television. He'd been a bystander before, back as a freshman when he rarely got off the bench. But this was different. Now the Syracuse forward's career was hanging in the balance, dependent on an investigation that alleged plagiarism. Southerland was hopeful, optimistic that his college days weren't over. But no one knew for certain.
"It was tough," Southerland said. "Real tough. It sucked. I wasn't sure what was going to happen."
No one was. It was a situation in which there were concerns that Southerland copied portions of a term paper from his tutor. It dragged on, and for a while it appeared as though he might wind up in a similar predicament as Fab Melo -- who was ruled academically ineligible toward the end of last season.
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"It was a mixup," Southerland said. "A misunderstanding."
Southerland was forced to sit six games in the heart of the Big East campaign, and the school was tight-lipped about the situation. It was yet another issue involving the program, following the Bernie Fine allegations a year ago. Finally, Southerland received a call from his academic adviser just prior to the Feb. 10 victory over St. John's. He had been reinstated. As the Orange now prepare to take on Michigan in the Final Four on Saturday night, no one is smiling more than the New York native.
"It was hard, but I'd been in that situation before," Southerland said. "That made it easier. We've faced a lot of adversity through my four years here, so it was just another one of those days."
Jim Boeheim and his staff were confident at first that Southerland would be back with the team, but then the Orange head coach started to become concerned whether he'd have his 6-foot-8 senior, the team's most adept perimeter shooter, available for the remainder of the season.
"I wasn't sure," Boeheim said.
Southerland has gone from a non-factor early in his career, a virtual afterthought on loaded Syracuse teams, to a major piece for this team now. He's a senior leader on a fairly young team. This group wouldn't be here without Southerland. Since he returned to the court, he's cracked double figures 13 times. Sure, the Cuse won four of six games when he was in limbo, but this team needs his ability to stretch the defense. He had 16 points in the Elite Eight victory against Marquette, and had 14 in the Round of 32 win against California.
Southerland has become a difference-maker.
Southerland was known for his athleticism when he committed to Syracuse as a sophomore in high school. He followed in the footsteps of Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris, and even followed Harris to Notre Dame Prep, where he spent two seasons before arriving at Syracuse. Coach Ryan Hurd said he often wondered why Southerland was so gassed toward the end of practice, then one day he saw Southerland running the hill across the street at 5:30 a.m. before classes.
"That explained it," Hurd said. "We had no idea, but James was running the hill and sneaking into the gym to get up shots."
Southerland only averaged 7.5 minutes per game as a freshman and rarely played when the outcome was in doubt. But instead of transferring out, like so many other kids do nowadays in this culture of instant gratification, he was patient and waited. It's paid off. The NBA scouts now love him, some telling CBSSports.com he could easily sneak into the first round of the upcoming NBA Draft. He's long, athletic and can really shoot the ball from deep.
"There just aren't many guys like him," said one NBA scout.
But Southerland isn't worried about the NBA right now. He's just happy to be wearing a uniform instead of street clothes. There was a time, not all that long ago, that he wasn't sure he'd find his way onto the court again.
Without him, the Cuse wouldn't be here.