The sun was starting to set over Biscayne Bay in Miami, and the view from Jim Boeheim's hotel room, 19 floors up, was spectacular. But all Boeheim could see was the darkness that was closing in. "Kids don't travel well," he said. "This trip has been too long. You watch, we'll struggle tonight. We'll have to get a little lucky to win."
Good luck and Boeheim have rarely been partners during his tenure at Syracuse, and the game that night in Miami Arena was no exception. As he had predicted, his Orangemen were clearly tired, and the result was a 75-66 loss to a Miami team that in the last two years has been tough on traveling Big East foes, even those who haven't been on the road for 14 straight days. "My fault," Boeheim said afterward. "Bad scheduling."
Syracuse's odyssey began on Dec. 21 with a flight to Tucson for a game with then third-ranked Arizona. After a surprisingly easy victory over the Wildcats, the Orangemen flew to Hawaii for Christmas and played three games in the Rainbow Classic, beating previously undefeated Illinois, then defeating Rhode Island before losing to top-ranked Massachusetts 65-47. The team then left the islands just before midnight and arrived in Miami at dinnertime on Dec. 31. The Orangemen faced the Hurricanes three days later and then were hit by a blizzard, which stranded them in New Jersey soon after that. It was the kind of trip even the NBA players' association would refuse to sanction.
But if Boeheim can be criticized for piling up too many frequent flier miles for his team, he should also come in for some praise for what the Orangemen (11-2 at week's end) had accomplished before their swoon in Miami. This, after all, is a team that figured to fall on hard times in the rejuvenated Big East without last year's seniors, guard Lawrence Moten, Syracuse's alltime leading scorer, and forward Lucious Jackson. To make matters worse, starting guard Michael Lloyd, a transfer from junior college a year ago, left school in August in the midst of a controversy over his transcript.
Syracuse's strong start should not come as a complete surprise, however. Boeheim has won 20 or more games in 18 of his 19 seasons at Syracuse, and his career winning percentage of .752 coming into the season placed him fifth among active coaches, ahead of Bob Knight, Denny Crum and Eddie Sutton, among others. And still Boeheim often gets no respect. He is usually put down as a whiner whose teams don't win the big games. But at age 51, he ignores the critics and just keeps winning.
He might have faced an even more difficult challenge this year if forward John Wallace had passed up his senior year. After averaging 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds as a junior, the 6'8" Wallace decided to come out early for the NBA draft. But when word came back that he would be chosen somewhere between 15th and 20th, he decided to return to Syracuse.
A good decision, as it turned out, for all concerned. Wallace has added new dimensions to his game. He can step out and shoot the open jumper. He is passing the ball better and is clearly comfortable as the team's go-to player. "I think we all know our roles on this team," Wallace says. "All I'm trying to do is be productive every night. I know I have to be for us to be successful."
Before facing Miami, Boeheim had visions of a 6-0 Big East start, with a road game at Rutgers on Sunday, followed by home games against Providence and Rutgers (again). But the loss in Miami and the cancellation of the Rutgers game (due to the blizzard) spoiled that chance. Now, he will gladly take 4-1. After that the Orange have games at West Virginia, at Connecticut and at Georgetown. "Then we'll really find out how well we travel," Boeheim said.