SALT LAKE CITY -- Syracuse needed injured center Arinze Onuaku, but he wasn't ready. Maybe he was never going to be ready. It's possible Onuaku wouldn't have played in this NCAA tournament, even if the Orange had reached the championship game, but that's a moot point now. Syracuse is done, and it's done because Onuaku couldn't play against Butler.
And I call that justice.
Butler's 63-59 victory against Syracuse wasn't just a victory for the tiny Horizon League or for underdogs. It was a victory for truth, for honesty, for ethics. None of which Syracuse showed when it bamboozled the NCAA tournament selection committee by lying -- yes, lying -- after Onuaku's injury in the Big East tournament.
Mindful of what the selection committee had done to Cincinnati minus injured Kenyon Martin before the 2000 NCAA tournament (and perhaps following Gary Parrish's suggestion), Syracuse implied that Onuaku wouldn't miss any of the tournament -- and the selection committee fell for it. The committee gave the Orange a No. 1 seed despite their losses in two games entering the NCAA tournament, and despite the absence of their starting center. Its precious No. 1 seed secured, Syracuse then announced that Onuaku wouldn't play that first weekend. No sense lying any more, right?
Shame on Syracuse for lying, but congratulations to Butler for eliminating the liar from this tournament. Until Orange coach Jim Boeheim's big lie, Syracuse was a team to root for -- a team of spare parts and castoffs and overlooked recruits, all of them congealing around the greatness of Iowa State transfer Wes Johnson into the most surprising team of the season. Onuaku had contributed modestly (10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game) but he shot 66.8 percent from the floor. He anchored the Orange's inside-out offense, and without him, the Orange were lost against Butler.
The stats from this game won't tell you that. Syracuse outrebounded Butler 38-28 and Johnson had nine rebounds himself. But someone else will tell you how important Onuaku was, or was not, in this game: both coaches. Listen first to Butler coach Brad Stevens, and keep in mind that he was asked a question about his team's 3-point shooting. From there, he said this:
"I don't want to take anything away from ourselves, but Onuaku in the middle of that zone is a difference-maker," Stevens said. "And when you get Jackson in foul trouble, it's not the same. He got in a little bit of foul trouble, and we had an advantage there by Onuaku not playing."
At first, to Boeheim's credit, he didn't hide this loss behind the absence of Onuaku.
"We haven't had him," Boeheim said. "There's nothing I'm going to say about that. We don't make excuses."
But then he got to thinking about it and ...
"Arinze is such a key guy for us, it's just unfortunate that that had to happen," Boeheim said. "He's become one of the better inside players in the history of our league. Kid shot 68 percent from the field. You know, he's just a tremendous force out there. He draws so much attention, he's such a focal point of our defense. Even in the first two games, we shot the ball unbelievably well. That's how we overcame it. Tonight we didn't shoot it that well, and we made too many turnovers."
Given the way Syracuse's only other big man, freshman DaShonte Riley, had played in his five minutes (no points, one rebound, two fouls, one turnover), Boeheim had no choice but to play Jackson for 35 minutes. So Jackson was on the floor tired, and with four fouls, and it's no wonder he scored just four points in 35 minutes, had three turnovers and was the player Boeheim singled out for a good butt-chewing during two late timeouts. Jackson was trying his best, I have no doubt of that, but he's not accustomed to playing 35 minutes -- and down the stretch he ran out of gas. The rotation was so taxed that three other Syracuse players played even more minutes: Johnson (40), Andy Rautins (38) and Kris Joseph (37).
When Syracuse hit the wall with about 5 minutes 23 seconds left, Butler was there to wipe up the mess. The Orange had a 54-50 lead, their biggest margin of the game, but Butler scored 11 straight points to rally and then to put it out of reach. The points came from everywhere -- a 3-pointer by Ronald Nored, a spinning bucket by Matt Howard against the stationary Jackson, an in-and-out-and-in 3-pointer by Willie Veasley, a tap-in by Veasley over Jackson, and then a free throw by Gordon Hayward.
|Jim Boeheim fails to get Syracuse to the Elite Eight despite a No. 1 seed. (Getty Images)|
Butler did not, and Butler had every chance. The Bulldogs saw their 35-25 halftime lead evaporate early in the second half when Shelvin Mack, who had 14 points in the first half, went cold. Mack wouldn't score again, and with Hayward playing tentatively, the Bulldogs couldn't keep pace with the rallying Orange. Johnson flew above the rim to jam home an inbounds pass, then he drilled a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the key, a pair of NBA plays that gave Syracuse a 40-39 lead with 13:27 to play.
This is where a lot of No. 5 seeds would have crumbled. But not Butler. Hayward is a future NBA player in his own right, and he answered with eight straight points, including a dunk and a 3-pointer of his own, and Butler led 48-43.
Syracuse had a game on its hands, for the first time since suckering the selection committee. The first-round game was a joke, of course. Instead of a potentially dangerous game against a No. 15 seed -- Syracuse has lost to a 15 before, you know -- the Orange were given the sure thing of a 16th seed, and the Orange used its ill-gotten gain to dispatch Vermont 79-56. In the second round, playing a No. 8 seed instead of a 7, Syracuse routed Gonzaga. Easy games, Onuaku or no Onuaku.
This one wasn't going to be easy. Butler is no joke -- a two-seed masquerading as a five. The Bulldogs went 30-4, played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, and they have three guys who will make a lot of money, in this country or elsewhere, in Hayward, Mack and Matt Howard.
Syracuse had floated past two teams thanks to its talent level and thanks also, no question, to its advantageous seed. But Butler has a Final Four-like team, and the Bulldogs are now one game away from the Final Four -- in their hometown of Indianapolis.
"Yeah, it would be amazing," Mack said.
"It would be a dream come true," Nored said.
Those are true statements. It's not difficult to do, Syracuse.