By Gene Phelps
No coach in the Big East Conference has taken more criticism for his coaching than Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.
No coach in the Big East Conference has taken his team to more Final Fours the past 10 years than Jim Boeheim.
But the coach, who owns the reputation of being a “whiner” who chokes in big games, refused to lash out at his critics this week.
“I can’t do that. Next year they’ll barb me double when we struggle (laugh),” said Boeheim, whose 15th-ranked Orangemen (28-8) play 19th-ranked Mississippi State (26-7) at 4:42 p.m. CST Saturday in the NCAA’s national semifinals, a.k.a., the Final Four.
“The criticism does bother me. I’m sensitive to it,” he said, “but I’m a hard guy to like. I whine. It’s a part of my sideline thing. I’ve done less and less the past few years.”
Boeheim would rather the criticism be aimed at him and not at his players.
“I want my guys to go out and play, have fun,” he said. “We’re (the coaches) supposed to take the blame. That’s what we’re here for.”
Syracuse’s last appearance in the Final Four came in 1987 when the Orangemen lost 74-73 to Indiana on Keith Smart’s last-second shot in the Louisiana Superdome.
Despite its reputation as one of the nation’s powerhouse conferences, the Big East’s only other Final Four representative since ’87 has been Seton Hall, in 1989. And this season, Boeheim’s club played second fiddle to Connecticut, Georgetown and Villanova, but it’s the only one remaining.
“We’re happy to be coming to New York,” he said. “This was quite unexpected, but when things are unexpected that makes it even better.”
Syracuse upset No. 4 Kansas 60-57 Sunday in the West Regional finals in Denver. The Orangemen opened the tournament with wins over Montana State (88-55), Drexel (69-58) and Georgia (83-81 overtime).
Mississippi State’s 86-68 win over Georgia in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament caught Boeheim’s eye.
“They dominated Georgia, a team we squeaked by,” he said. “It’s obvious that Mississippi State has played very well. Their backcourt (Darryl Wilson and Marcus Bullard) is sensational and (Dontae’) Jones has dominated very good defensive teams in Kentucky and Connecticut.
“Mississippi State is no underdog. They are equal to anyone in this tournament.”
The Orangemen are led by 6-foot-8 senior forward John Wallace, who averages 22.1 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. But in postseason play, 6-8 center Otis Hill has joined Wallace to give Syracuse a solid one-two punch inside. Hill has averaged 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds in four NCAA games.
“Otis has stepped up his game,” Boeheim said. “It’s not shocking to me. Otis and John (Wallace) have taken the pressure off of each other.”
Syracuse, like Mississippi State, returned to practice Tuesday after taking Sunday and Monday off.
“We should be rested,” Boeheim said. “We’re very excited about coming to New York and New Jersey. I think New York’s excited and New York doesn’t get excited about too many things.”