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Pitoniak: A season both special and bizarre

No doubt about it. The officiating was terrible, continuing a trend that has plagued this NCAA tournament. Forty-nine fouls - 27 vs. Syracuse - were called by the crew of John Higgins, Michael Nance and Thomas O'Neill, making them, rather than the Orange and Ohio State Buckeye players, the focal point. (Can't help it, but Marv Levy's marvelous "You over-officious jerk" line kept popping into my head while watching this Elite Eight contest quickly devolve into a foul-fest.)

    That said, the overzealous whistle-blowers weren't the main reasons SU's season ended one game shy of a fifth Final Four with a 77-70 loss Saturday night.  Even Jim Boeheim, who was nailed with his first technical in three seasons for straying too far from the bench, said as much, citing his team's offensive inconsistency and the play of future NBA lottery pick Jared Sullinger as more important factors.

    While losing for just the third time in 37 games, Syracuse blew at least seven layups and committed several unforced turnovers during crunch time. Before this contest, I wrote the Orangemen would go as far as Dion Waiters carried them and that senior forward Kris Joseph would need to step up big-time against the Buckeyes. I also wrote that this might be the matchup where the inside of their Fab-u-less zone defense was exposed.

    Well, Waiters, who had been superb throughout the post-season, wound up turning in a clunker of a performance in what's likely his final game in Orange. The sophomore guard seemed uncomfortable much of the night and forced the action too often. He finished with just 9 points - half his average during Big East and NCAA tournament games - on two-of-8 shooting before fouling out. Waiters wouldn't comment on his future after the game, but all indications are that he will declare for the NBA draft in June. He's projected as a mid-to-late first-rounder.

    Joseph, meanwhile, continued his slide, scoring 10 points on four-of-11 shooting. The player who participated in more wins than any player in SU history (119) played passively much of the night and unfortunately ended his career with a whimper.

    SU's offensive inconsistencies were evident during the first half. The Orange failed to take full advantage of Sullinger being anchored to the bench with foul trouble for 13 minutes. This was a time when Syracuse should have made hay, not to mention shots. Instead, the Orange converted just 10-of-28 field goal attempts and the Buckeyes were able to go into the locker room with a 29-29 tie instead of a deficit.

    With Sullinger back out there for almost the entire second half Ohio State was a different team. Baye Keita, who impressed with 11 rebounds and four blocks, did his best against the Buckeyes' 6-foot-9, 280-pound wide body. But Sullinger, who eschewed the NBA draft after last season, was too much to handle. He finished with 19 points and seven rebounds, and created numerous scoring opportunities for his teammates because SU was forced to commit two players to pay constant attention to him.

    To their credit, the Orangemen continued to battle, spurred on by junior guard Brandon Triche, who finished with 15 points - all in the second half.

    But SU's comeback ran out of gas, and the Buckeyes iced the win with 13-of-14 free throws in the final 68 seconds.

    Unlike his senior teammate, Scoop Jardine finished his career strongly, scoring 14 points and handing out six assists to earn All-Region honors. Like several of his teammates, he couldn't contain the tears afterward. His on-court decision-making may have caused consternation at times, but I thought he was one of the best leaders in SU hoops history. He set a positive, selfless tone. He was a young man who truly benefitted from his college experience, maturing tremendously along the way while earning his degree.

    The mantle of leadership now falls on senior-to-be Triche. He is a gifted player whom I believe is ready to have a monster senior season. This will be his team to guide, and, hopefully, he's learned from the examples that Scoop and Joseph set.

    Triche will be leading a team that will have a dramatically different look, with Jardine, Joseph, Waiters and suspended center Fab Melo gone. But the Orange won't lack for talent. Michael Carter-Williams, who showed flashes as a freshman, will man the point. A McDonald's All-American, he is more talented than Scoop, but you're going to have to live with the growing pains and the turnovers as he learns to run the offense. Triche will take some of the burden off him. C.J. Fair and James Southerland have the inside track at forward, and Keita and Christmas may split time at center. (Advice to Keita: Spend a little more time in the cafeteria and weight room.)

    Trevor Cooney, red-shirted as a freshman this season, will give the Orange a legitimate outside shooting threat. He's been called a taller version of Gerry McNamara. He can light it up.

And look for DaJuan Coleman from nearby Jamesville-DeWitt to push for a starting job as a freshman. Rebounding is a huge problem for SU and Coleman, a 6-foot-10, 280-pound forward, can help prevent the Orange from being pushed around on the boards. The fact he's been compared to a young Sullinger is cause for excitement.

The question will be how well these players mesh. Again, much of that will depend on Triche and upperclassmen like Fair, Southerland and Keita. They will set the tone.

It's unlikely, though, they will have the chemistry that this year's team had. The wounds of their loss to Ohio State are still fresh and it will take time for them and for SU fans to fully appreciate their achievements - which include a 17-1 Big East regular-season record, a No. 1 ranking for several weeks and an amazing 34-3 final record.

Of course, this season also will be remembered not only for the wins, but for the tumult. There's never been a more insane hoops campaign at SU than this one. Starting with the child sexual molestation allegations back in November against fired assistant coach Bernie Fine, through Melo's two suspensions, the defamation of character suit against Boeheim by Fine's accusers and the Yahoo! story about Syracuse players from the past violating the school's drug policies, it's been one sordid drama after another.

And, still, somehow this team managed to keep its focus on basketball. The Orangemen played smothering defense, were unselfish and careful with the ball on offense and they genuinely seemed to care for one another.

It all added up to a season that was both special and bizarre.

     

    

      

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