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Pitoniak: Orange staged riveting run

 Yes, I know that last play by Trevor Cooney was a head-scratcher, and James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams picked a bad night to play so poorly and the officiating was suspect at times, but don't let the what-ifs detract from what really was a remarkable Syracuse basketball season.

                The Orange men staged one heck of a redemption run.

                The obits for the season had been written three weeks ago after that ghastly seven-losses-in-12-games finish. But the Cuse rebounded to go 7-2 in the post-season and come within a few shots and calls of playing in the national championship game.

                So, during this mourning after SU's 61-56 loss to Michigan in the NCAA semifinals, a dose of perspective is in order.

                Don't forget that this team entered the season with four new starters, and the losses to graduation and the NBA included two first-round picks (Dion Waiters and Fab Melo), a second-round pick (Kris Joseph) and a veteran point guard (Scoop Jardine.) So, if I told you at the beginning of the season that this team would win 30 games and reach the Final Four, I think you would have looked at me as if I had been gulping Orange Kool-Aid spiked with copious amounts of vodka.

                Syracuse discovered itself at its home-away-from-home, Madison Square Garden, during the Big East Conference tournament, winning three of four, then continued its Magical Mystery Tour with four victories in the NCAAs, employing a suffocating 2-3 zone defense to advance to Atlanta.

                The zone wasn't quite as smothering vs. Michigan, but despite damage done by some early long-long-distance 3's and the passing wizardry and rebounding of center Mitch McGary, SU's defense played well enough to win. The Orange men limited the best offense in the tournament to just 61 points. Trey Burke, the Associated Press national player of the year, hit just one-of-8 shots and scored 7 points, 11 below his average. Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Nick Stauckus combined to make just five-of-29 shots, including only 4-of-18 from beyond the arc. McGary hurt the Orange with 12 points, 11 boards and six assists.

                But SU's Achilles heel proved to be its offense, or lack thereof. C.J. Fair was magnificent, scoring 22 points and almost carrying the team into the championship game by himself, the way John Wallace had back in 1996. But MCW managed just two points and two assists while turning the ball over five times, and Southerland hit just 1-of-5 from beyond the 3-point line and finished with just five points.

                Before the game I said Fair needed to exploit his matchup with the shorter and less experienced Glenn Robinson III and that Southerland needed to make three or four 3's. Fair did what he needed to do; Southerland didn't. 

                So, now it's time to look to the future. I believe Jim Boeheim is sincere about wanting to return for a 38th season as coach, and help the Orange men make the transition into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

                SU's lineup next year will undergo some more dramatic changes. Brandon Triche and Southerland will graduate. MCW is projected to be a top-15 NBA draft pick in June and Fair's pro stock received a serious boost after his performance this season, so he very well may be gone, too, leaving center Rakeem Christmas as the only returning starter.

                A strong recruiting class is on its way, led by the dynamic Tyler Ennis, who will be manning the point guard position as a freshman. Small forward Jerami Grant helped spark SU's comeback vs. Michigan and should be ready to start next season. He is a superb athlete and I think he will be a special player at Syracuse before all is said and done.

                 Cooney struggled mightily during this, his redshirt freshman season, but it is way too early to give up on him. He is a good shooter and a good athlete. Next year could be his breakout year. DaJuan Coleman, the 6-foot-9 wide body, had a disappointing freshman season interrupted by injury, but could be a factor next year if he spends the offseason getting himself into better shape.

                 Baye Moussa Keita's hustle and shot-blocking ability will enable him to push Christmas for starting time in 2013-14. Christmas, a McDonald's High School All-American, has been a disappointment so far, but big men often take time to mature as basketball players, so he could be one of the surprise players next year, depending on how hard he works on his game. Duke transfer Michael Gbinije, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, also could be a contributor.

                It's definitely going to be strange watching SU play in the ACC after all these years in the Big East. But, as Boeheim said, there will be a strong Big East flavor to the ACC, with SU, Louisville, Pitt and Notre Dame joining former Big East schools Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech.

                It would have been fitting had the Orange men made it to the NCAA title game against Louisville. It would have provided an exclamation point to the Big East, if you will. That didn't happen, but it doesn't diminish what was truly an extraordinary finish to another memorable Syracuse basketball season.

                   Author and columnist Scott Pitoniak has followed SU hoops since the mid-1960s and has covered them since the mid-1970s. He is author of "Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story." You can read more of his stuff at www.scottpitoniak.com. 
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