One great thing about college basketball, unlike college football, is they determine the championship on the field of play. One downside is that people tend to measure success and greatness, based on what you do accomplish. And in college basketball, it is very difficult to win that championship; they don’t call it March Madness for nothing. Only one team can make it all the way through the tournament undefeated, and that requires tremendous skill, poise, and some good luck (the right bounces, no injuries, no illnesses, no bad calls, no lucky shots by the opposition).
The 1986-1987 Syracuse basketball team was somewhat of a surprise… at least from the perspective they were not expected to do anything before the season began. As it played itself out, it became evident that they were a very good team; young and somewhat inexperienced, but very good. Their run through the NCAA tournament was magical, exorcising many past demons for Syracuse basketball. The win over Florida sent a signal that this team was indeed ready to play, and the win over North Carolina made them legit.
In the final against Indiana, Syracuse had the lead for a good portion of the second half, but the deadly accurate three point shooting of Steve Alford kept Indiana in the game. And the Orangemen followed their own pattern of missing free throws. Here’s where those lines between greatness and being good are marginal. With less than a minute to go, Derrick Coleman missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw; that left it a one point game, and allowed Keith Smart to hit his corner game winner over an outstretched Howard Triche (fittingly, 16 years later, in the same corner of the court, Hakim Warrick would block the same last second result, giving Syracuse a much happier outcome!). If Coleman had made both this free throws, Syracuse would’ve led by three with little time remaining; Indiana could have come back and tied, but things would’ve been different. If Coleman makes that free throw, he becomes Carmelo Anthony 16 years before Anthony does… a freshman leading the team to the national championship. Rony Seikaly, Sherman Douglas, Stevie Thompson, Greg Monroe, and Howard Triche all get their rings. But the factor of one missed free throw, in one game; a game where Coleman had 19 rebounds as a freshman… that should tarnish his legacy? Stop him from being considered Melo before Melo? Perhaps it should be that way. Seems to me, a whole seasons’ body of work is more important than one basket. But as strong argument for not stepping up at THE moment of the season could be made.
Now, after my long prelude, let me segue into my actual article content. The Best Teams Don’t Always Win. I think, in the history of Syracuse basketball, the 1987-1988 Syracuse squad was the best team ever assembled. 1986-1987, and 1988-1989 need some attention; 2002-2003 with their championship must be noted. But I think, on any given night, the 1987-88 team would be the team to beat.
The team would go 26-9 over the course of the season, definitely a flawed record, far more losses than the ‘greatest’ Syracuse team should have had. But the components of the team were superb, strong teamwork existed, and the team won, and won big. And when this Syracuse team went on a run, teams knew about it.
Their trademark all season was letting the games stay close, until that one big moment where they would go on a 18-2 or 13-0 run, and just blow their opposition away. They had nine losses, but only one was out of reach, a 80-69 loss to Arizona in the Great Alaska Shootout. Otherwise, all other eight losses would be by four points or less, five decided by two points or less.
The team had its Achilles heel, which led to those close game losses: they could not make free throws. Not just in the crunch time, but anytime in the game. Four of the five starters shot less than 70%, and Rony Seikaly, the team’s most prolific free throw shooter was the worst at 57%. Matt Roe, the only starter to shoot more than 70%, shot at a 79% clip… but he took only 38 shots from the charity stripe all season, so he was non-factor. A couple of the bench players, Derek Brower (39%) and Herman Harried (27%) were some of the worst free throw shooters in school history.
The team could dominate a game. Led by the General, Sherman Douglas, they were extremely explosive on offense. Douglas was developing a style of point guard never seen before in the NCAA (and possibly hasn’t been seen since), where he seemingly could effortlessly throw up an alley-oop pass from any area of the court, and a fellow Orangemen would bring it home with a thunderous dunk. Other players could do the alley-oop, but Douglas made it seem routine. Stevie Thompson was the most common recipient of those passes; at 6’1” (listed at 6’4”, but definitely closer to the shorter height mentioned), Thompson have explosive leaping ability and could jump and grab virtually any ball up near the rim.
Derrick Coleman was adding to his resume as being the greatest rebounder in modern college basketball history, averaging 11 a game; he also showed off his game skills by being able to bring the ball up the court during the press, and passing the ball near the hoop to Thompson and Seikaly. More importantly Rony Seikaly, now a senior, had developed consistency into his game, and had developed several offensive skills allowing him to front the basket when necessary and make that 10-15 foot shot. He could now carry the Orangemen on his back, when necessary, and had a few 30 point game efforts to his credit.
Matt Roe rounded out the starting five and brought a much needed perimeter threat, hitting 40% of his three point efforts. He would split time with Earl Duncan, a flashy guard, who was better at driving the paint, rather than Roe’s jump shot from the perimeter.
Keith Hughes, an outstanding sophomore prospect, was buried deep on the Syracuse bench behind the talent on the court. He would later star at Rutgers.
The Orangemen played a lot of full court press, with Seikaly in the back to clean up any missed traps. Stevie Thompson was always pressing the opposing point guard with his lightning speed.
And it was foolish to try to full court press this team. Douglas was very adept at breaking the press on his own. But with the ball handling of Coleman, at 6’10”, he would help bring the ball up the court, and could easily see over all the defenders.
The Orangemen would finish the Big East regular season 11-5. But in the tournament they turned it up a notch, a fairly easily disposed of Boston College, Seton Hall and Villanova, to win the Big East Championship.
The NCAA tournament looked very promising. The Orangemen took a while to heat up versus North Carolina A&T, but then got on track and ended up making it an easy game. Part of the problem was that Sherman Douglas was fighting off a terrible cold, and NCAA restrictions prohibited proper medication.
While that was not a problem against NC A&T, it did become a problem against Rhode Island in the second round. Rhode Island stepped up the pressure, and made the Orangemen run… normally a bad move. But in this case, a great one, as Douglas was definitely struggling with his cold. Without their brilliant playmaker to get them the ball, the rest of the team struggled to score. The team tried to ride the shoulders of Rony Seikaly. He did fine with 27 points, but it wasn’t enough. Douglas, despite his woes, still had 12 assists, but it wasn’t enough as the Orangemen would lose to Rhode Island 97-94.
Now in my opinion, if Douglas was healthy, the Orangemen would’ve easily dispatched of Rhode Island. We’ll never know, because you can’t replay it… and Rhode Island does deserve the credit for winning; I don't mean to demean their accomplishment, though I guess I am (my appologies).
How far would’ve the Orangemen gone? I’m guessing they couldn’t have won it all… the lack of free throw shooting by any of the primary shooters was going to catch up with them if any of the games ever got tight. It’s quite possible they could have destroyed all their competition, and made free throw shooting a moot point. But we’ll never know.
It’s also possible that the following season’s team was even better… but that’s for another time.