For Boeheim, Syracuse, Asheville just one more distraction

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PITTSBURGH -- After all that Jim Boeheim's team and his program have been through this year, it almost became worse Thursday for the Syracuse Orange in a second-round NCAA tournament game.

Never has a No. 1 seed lost to a No. 16 seed, but the Orange trailed UNC-Asheville at the half, got a few questionable calls in the second half to help their cause to avoid becoming a historical footnote, and escaped with a 72-65 victory to advance to the third round Saturday against Kansas State.

To say the Syracuse program has seen its share of turmoil the past year is an understatement.

Maybe that's why Boeheim seemed to have a big, giant chip on his shoulder at the podium after the game.

He was asked if he thought it was his team against the world.

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"Not the whole world, just three-quarters of the world," Boeheim said. "People in China are not upset with us."

The quick wit is needed now. In the past year, associate head coach Bernie Fine was accused of sexual abuse and fired, but he has not been charged. There was a report of improprieties involving the school's drug-testing program and 7-foot center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for the tournament Tuesday.

There was also a report about Syracuse's academic record, which led Boeheim to go on a 10-minute diatribe after questions from the media, defending his program.

Messy is being nice in describing the current state.

Messy is exactly how to describe the way Syracuse played.

For a half, Syracuse looked nothing like the team that won 31 games and earned the East Regional's top seed. They looked flat. They looked disinterested and they seemed more than bothered by the 2-3 zone played by UNC-Asheville, which led 34-30 at the half. It was the first time a top seed trailed at the half since Kentucky trailed Holy Cross in 2002.

"Offensively, we were pretty bad against the zone," Syracuse guard Brandon Triche said.

And that had nothing to do with Melo not being on the court. The Orangemen still were much bigger than UNC-Asheville, which didn't start a player taller than 6-5.

It's just that Syracuse didn't penetrate the zone, creating open looks. It's weird that Syracuse has struggled the past two games against zone since they play it all the time on their defensive end.

Boeheim made a point several times to say that Melo not being there didn't matter.

"The fact that this game was close had nothing to do with the center position," Boeheim said.

It had to do with a feisty underdog that made shots against the Syracuse 2-3 zone. As the game moved along, the crowd seemed to back the Bulldogs more and more. And when there were some ticky-tack calls, including a properly called lane violation, the crowd went nuts.

In the end, Syracuse was too good. That didn't keep the Bulldogs players and coaches from firing some shots after the game.

"Syracuse is a better team than Asheville," Bulldogs coach Eddie Biedenbach. "Tonight we were better than Syracuse. I have all the respect for Jim Boeheim their team being 31-2. They deserve the recognition they've got this year. This [Asheville] was the better team tonight."

Biedenbach clearly was annoyed with the officiating, but refrained from saying so for fear of being fined. As he took the podium, he looked to the moderator and said, "Isn't there a cooling off period?"

Guard. J.P. Primm didn't hold back.

"In college basketball, sometimes you have to play the whole building, you know," Primm said.

Boeheim didn't want to hear any of it. When one of his players was asked about the Bulldogs saying they were the better team, Boeheim quickly interrupted.

"That's why they make scoreboards," he said.

If he wants to be on the right side of it in the next game, his team must play better. Adapting to life in the middle without Melo should not have been that hard against a smaller team like the Bulldogs. If Syracuse plays this way again, they have no chance of reaching the Final Four.

When they played their first game without Melo earlier this season, as he sat out three games for academic reasons, Notre Dame blew them out. It was their worst game of the year. But they regrouped.

Can they do it again?

"I think our effort is going to be a lot better next game," Triche said. "It has to be. I know it's going to be."

If not, the distraction from the problems of actually playing games won't be around much longer.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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