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Looking back at his time at Syracuse, Tyler Lydon remembers a distinct emotion: the feeling before high-pressure games. Gonzaga in the 2016 Sweet Sixteen. Then Virginia. North Carolina in the Final Four.
At the center of those recollections stands Jim Boeheim.
“It’s like the weird way that (Boeheim is) able to get you fired up for the game and keep you confident at the same time,” Lydon said. “He’s got this weird way of just kind of being able to control everybody else’s emotions a little bit. I think that’s part of what makes him such a great coach. He’s able to go into these games, and guys are just ready to go.”
Syracuse has already had its fair share of high-stakes games in 2020-21. Not quite like Lydon’s 2016 Final Four run, but significant nonetheless. The Orange kept their season alive in the last two games by beating North Carolina and Clemson when losses likely would have sunk their NCAA Tournament hopes. From now on, every game is win-or-go-home in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and, potentially, beyond.
Boeheim’s been in this spot countless times over the past 45 years. High-pressure games with seasons, careers and championships on the line. Rivalries, conference tournaments, March Madness matchups.
The approach is the same for them all. The key to getting Boeheim’s teams in the right mindset for big games is staying even-keeled and keeping everything familiar in the leadup to tipoff. The more comfortable his players can be under pressure, the better. There are no chest-banging pregame speeches, no special pregame routines. Just Boeheim, poised in hopes his team can match that presence. For Syracuse’s upcoming ACC tournament matchup with North Carolina State, it’ll be more of the same.
“He’s just very, very calm,” Lydon said. “Playing for as long as I have, you get coaches who are absolutely fired up. And most of them are. And it’s not that he’s fired up, not showing it, but he’s just so calm. Yet at the same time is able to make you want to run through a brick wall.”
Boeheim has won 979 career games, seventh all-time even after getting 101 wins vacated. His teams have made the NCAA Tournament in 35 of his 44 seasons heading into this year. This year, Syracuse has played its best ball in the past two games — when they’ve mattered the most.
Mike Hopkins, assistant coach from 1995 to 2017, said Boeheim’s practice plans are structured the same way as they were 20 years ago. Players know what to expect when they walk into the Carmelo K. Anthony Center, and that simplicity pays off when March comes.
Before this year’s matchup with Duke, annually a game circled on everyone’s calendars, Syracuse didn’t prepare any differently, junior guard Buddy Boeheim said.
“I feel like sometimes if you hype it up so much, it just adds extra pressure that you don’t need,” Buddy said after the 85-71 loss.
He’s just very, very calm. Yet at the same time is able to make you want to run through a brick wall.
Tyler Lydon, former SU forward
In Eric Devendorf’s four years at SU, the Orange played in two Big East conference title games and four NCAA Tournament matches. For each, Devendorf said Boeheim had the same composure. “He never changes his focus regardless of if it’s Le Moyne or if it’s Georgetown.” That’s why the Hall of Famer has had so much consistent success over the years, Devendorf said.
Because Boeheim has such a calm demeanor, his players know that when he has something to say, it’s meaningful, according to some former players. Boeheim can be animated on the sidelines, both at officials and his own players. But from a player’s perspective, Devendorf said his calmness is evident in tense situations — when SU is trailing at halftime or in clutch situations — when Boeheim needs to get his point across in huddles.
“His focus, his composure, it definitely rubbed off on us during those games,” Devendorf said.
That doesn’t apply only to in-game situations. John Wallace, a star forward from 1992 to 1996, remembers Boeheim encouraging him before his first ever college game. Wallace had struggled in practice, but Boeheim assured him that his shots would fall and he’d play every game because he was the team’s best rebounder.
As an All-American in 1996, Wallace led Syracuse to the national championship game. He recalls Boeheim “always just chilling” during the Orange’s run.
It was like a quiet confidence. And then the team had a quiet confidence.
John Wallace, former SU forward
“He was what we call phlegmatic,” Wallace said. “It was like a quiet confidence. And then the team had a quiet confidence. We rode that wave all the way to our Final Four when I was there. Carmelo then rode it to a championship. ”
Still, signature wins have escaped Syracuse this year. The Orange are 1-6 in Quadrant 1 games, with blowout losses to Virginia, Duke and Clemson. It also collapsed at home against a less-talented Pittsburgh team on Jan. 6. With the season hanging in the balance, every game presents the need for Boeheim’s calm demeanor.
“He is the best big-game coach that there is,” Hopkins said. “He is the master. He finds ways to win. But in big games, there’s nobody else that you’d rather have than Jim Boeheim, for sure.”
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