HOUSTON — From the moment the NCAA selection committee took Syracuse off the bubble and slotted it in the bracket as a 10th seed in the Midwest, the Orange played the “no respect” card to the hilt and rose to meet every criticism with determined play. Along the way, they knocked off favored Dayton, brought Middle Tennessee State back to reality after its upset of Michigan State and then put together gutty comebacks against Gonzaga and Virginia to become the first 10th seed ever to reach the Final Four.
Although Syracuse (23-13) lost two previous meetings with North Carolina (32-6), the last remaining No. 1 seed in the tournament, there was every reason to expect the Orange and coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense to make things tough on the Tar Heels in their late national semifinals game Saturday night at NRG Stadium.
Freshman guard Malachi Richardson, whose 23-point performance against Virginia got the Orange over the last hump before Houston, said his teammates have embraced the underdog role. “It doesn’t bother me,” Richardson said. “When we prove people wrong, it means a lot to us.”
Syracuse was a 9 ½-point underdog against Carolina, which won its previous four tournament games by an average of 16.0 points.
“Either way it goes, people are going to doubt us,” Richardson said. “If we beat North Carolina, they’ll say, ‘This is the third time. They probably should have beaten them before.’ If we lose, they’ll say, ‘They shouldn’t have been in, anyway.’ Unless we actually win the national championship, people are going to talk.”
Graduate student guard Trevor Cooney was in his second Final Four after reaching that plateau in 2013 with a team that lost to Michigan in the semifinals. He downplayed the noise that has surrounded the Orange’s run through the tournament.
“I block that stuff out,” Cooney insisted. “I think all athletes should. We’re at the top of college basketball, and I think with every athlete, you’re going to get haters and the naysayers and stuff like that. You’ve got to block that out and play, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Boeheim has been pleased with the resilience his team has shown throughout an up-and-down season that was marred by the nine-game suspension he served at the start of ACC play as a result of NCAA sanctions levied against Syracuse last March. When he returned to the bench, play improved, but then the Orange finished with losses in five of their last six games, including the opener of the ACC Tournament. That had Boeheim admittedly concerned about how his team might be viewed by the selection committee.
“I was worried about getting in,” Boeheim said. “You always worry about that. But I knew we had three wins away from home — Duke, Texas A&M, Connecticut — that nobody else had.”
Once they were in, Richardson and forward Tyler Roberson said Boeheim didn’t make it a crusade to prove the critics wrong, but he simply emphasized the chance to make a new start.
“Not knowing if we would get in was tough,” Roberson said. “Once we got in, it was like we have another life, another chance to do something big.”
The run to the Final Four was fueled primarily by a strong defensive mentality. The Orange allowed only 55.8 points per game through four tournament games. Boeheim was hoping to see offensive improvement against North Carolina, but he couldn’t argue with the resolve his team has shown.
“They’ve been a good group all year through the adversity,” Boeheim said. “They just kept going . . . You know, they’re not just happy to be here; they want to play well and do well here.”