What Do You Do For An Encore?

The feat has been accomplished by just six schools. Since the NCAA basketball tournament debuted in 1939, only UCLA (multiple times under John Wooden, the last of his 10 overall titles coming in 1975, the year of Syracuse's first trip to a Final Four), Kentucky, Oklahoma State, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and lastly, Duke in 1991-92 have repeated as national champions.

When Conference USA opponent Charlotte (a formidable opener with the 49ers picked to finish among the top three teams in several pre-season C-USA polls) comes into the Dome on Nov. 26, it will officially mark the start of a goal to end up at the 2004 Final Four in San Antonio for this year's edition of the Orangemen, the defending national champions, who will seek to shock the college hoops world one more time and shoot for being the seventh program to repeat.

All it takes to see how difficult that's going to be is to simply look back at last March's tournament games in Boston, when for awhile it didn't even look like SU was going to make it past Oklahoma State in the second round. Even Coach Boeheim admitted afterwards that he was thinking about scheduling off-season tee times not the East Regional games in a virtual home court setting the following weekend in Albany.

If this year's team makes the tournament and wins its first two games to advance to the Sweet 16, it would mark the farthest an Orange squad has advanced the year after playing in the Final Four. The two first two teams under coach Boeheim to first play for the national title, stumbled the following season. The 1988 SU squad with three starters from the previous year's team that lost to Indiana, certainly had more talent than second-round conqueror Rhode Island. But with Sherman Douglas struggling with a stomach flu, the Rams, led by the inspired play of point guard Tom Garrick, held off the Orange in a second-round game at North CarolinaÕs Dean Dome.

In '97 Syracuse was just .500 in the conference (9-9) and dropped four of its last ten games to have its bubble burst and fall into the NIT. That tournament even gave SU a first-round home game against Florida State, but the disappointment not to make the Big Dance, and a hand injury that hampered the previous season's Final Four all tournament team member Todd Burgan, resulted in one of the smallest Dome crowds ever, and an equally poor showing on the court in a 15-point loss to the Seminoles.

So, with Carmelo Anthony departing, four highly touted freshmen arriving, and the nucleus of senior Jeremy McNeil, juniors Hakim Warrick, Craig Forth and Josh Pace, and sophomores Gerry McNamara, Billy Edelin returning from the title team, it will be interesting to see just how far Boeheim can direct this squad by mixing and matching the pieces to replace Anthony's scoring, and, just has importantly, his rebounding.

More on this story can be found in this month's issue of The Juice.

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