It's All About Heart

Basketball writing lesson No. 1: never argue with the coach who has 28 years of coaching experience and a national title under his belt. Question him on occasion, but don't argue.<br><br>

After his Syracuse Orangemen beat the Villanova Wildcats on Feb. 23, Jim Boeheim berated the media for questioning his team's heart, and not crediting its defense over the last several games. Victories over Georgetown and Villanova featured poor shooting percentages by the opposition, but instead of crediting the Syracuse defense, Boeheim was infuriated that writers chose to focus on the supposed offensive slumping of the adversaries.

"Do you guys know anything about basketball?" Boeheim asked at the post-game press conference. "It's our defense that's forcing these teams to shoot poorly, but you're all probably going to write about how they just missed shots."

Easy Jimbo. Or so I thought at the time.

While Boeheim had some points, it wasn't like Syracuse was stopping the top of the BIG EAST. Villanova and Georgetown rank seventh and 12th respectively in the conference in team field goal percentages, and sixth and 10th in points scored per game. While holding Georgetown to 27 percent shooting and Villanova to 37.3 percent is pretty good, it wasn't happening against productive offensive teams. Just a week before the Villanova game, Notre Dame dropped 84 points on 45.5 percent shooting on the Orangemen in the Carrier Dome. Not an impressive defensive stand on your home court.

So while Boeheim can rant and we'll listen, most reporters, myself included, took what he said, like many things he says, half-serious.

Enter Pittsburgh. Or better yet, the Orangemen enter Pittsburgh.

The setup was simple; the No. 3 team in the nation with a 40-game home winning streak hosting the team they held to a Carrier Dome record low 45 points just one month earlier. The storyline was supposed to go something like: Syracuse struggles on offense, Pitt's meticulous and smooth offense beats down the 2-3 zone, and Pitt wins 66-50, or something like that.

Not so fast. What do you know? The guy with 28 years coaching experience knew what he was talking about.

In easily one of the biggest upsets of the season, and by far the biggest win of the year for the Orangemen, Syracuse beat Pitt 49-46 in overtime at the Peterson Events Center, where Pitt had been 34-0 since its opening. Not a half-time score. Not a final score. A final score in overtime. Obviously, Syracuse's offense was abysmal, nothing new this season; but what about Pitt, known primarily as an unbeatable defensive unit.

Pitt runs probably the second best offense in the BIG EAST. They aren't a high scoring team, averaging just 69.4 ppg (ninth in the conference), but they're consistent, scoring 66 points or more in their previous nine games prior to Sunday. More impressive is the fact they shoot 48.5 percent as a team, second only to UConn in the conference.

The Orangemen, on the other hand, aren't known as a defensive threat. They give up 68.2 ppg (10th in the conference), and opposing teams average a league worst 38.0 rpg against the Orangemen.

So how did Syracuse beat Pitt through their defense? Long arms and heart.

The Orangemen are fourth in field goal defense, second in 3-point field defense and second in blocked shots in the conference. The 2-3 zone extends on shooters forcing tough shots, and when teams get it inside those long arms swat shots back down the court.

More importantly, to do what Syracuse did took heart. Boeheim said we don't credit his team's heart; that's because until recently they didn't show any. Beating teams like Rutgers and Georgetown down the wire doesn't show heart, it shows resiliency and being able to bail yourself out of a jam. Beating a team like Pittsburgh and holding them to just 46 points, when you yourself are having an off-shooting night, that takes heart.

Earlier in the season Syracuse wasn't playing like champions and I suggested that we needed to stop referring to them as defending champions and instead former champions. The heart that drove last year's team disappeared with the disappearance of Carmelo Anthony. I spoke too soon.

Beating Pittsburgh took the heart of a champion, and doing it in the manner that the Orangemen did, well that takes the heart of the defending champions.

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