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NCAA Tournament

Syracuse still fighting in year of adversity

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has faced down his critics and kept his team focused on winning - which it has done a lot.

Has any team ever laughed so hard in the face of Murphy’s law?

Off the court, there were too many malfunctions around the Syracuse basketball program to count.

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It wasn’t just the allegations of sexual molestation against an assistant coach that threatened to take a sledgehammer to the team’s season just as it was starting.

Problems were everywhere.

Guard Dion Waiters, sour over his playing time and frustrated about Jim Boeheim’s coaching style, was thinking of leaving the program.

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That was last April.

Fab Melo was overweight. Not by 5 pounds. By 25.

That was last summer.

Players who hadn’t been on the roster for years allegedly committed drug policy violations that haunted the team this season.

That was last month.

Melo, though, emerged as a dominant defender, gleefully swatting shots all season and winning the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award. But after dealing with his eligibility issues earlier in the season, the Orange found out he wouldn’t be eligible for any of their NCAA Tournament games.

That was last week, the day before Syracuse opened up vs. UNC-Asheville.

One blow after another, and what did Syracuse do? It won a school-record 20 straight games to start the season - the best run by a Big East team since Boston College ripped off 20 straight in 2004-05.

Now the Orange (33-2) have won 13 of their last 14 games entering Thursday night’s Sweet 16 dance with Wisconsin at TD Garden, and as the No. 1 seed in the East Regional, they have their crosshairs trained on the school’s first national title since 2003.

As loud and as constant as the controversy has been around the program, the players in the locker room have been blissfully oblivious to it.

When he discussed this last week in Pittsburgh, as his team was winning its first two tournament games, Boeheim grinned a Larry David grin that showed a glimpse of the twisted pleasure a season like this may bring him, when it feels as though his team is up against not just the rest of the tournament bracket but the rest of the world.

“I don’t think it’s the whole world,’’ Boeheim quipped. “Three-quarters maybe. I think there’s some people in China that aren’t upset with us.’’

‘What’s next?’

Associate head coach Bernie Fine was fired Nov. 27. The accusations of sexual misconduct against him made by former ball boys had been around since 2002, and in the wake of the scandal that rocked the Penn State football program, they resurfaced.

Then tape of a voice-mail left by Fine’s wife emerged, with her expressing worry that her husband might have molested a ball boy.

When the school announced Fine’s dismissal, it was the kind of news that didn’t land just on ESPN. It was on CNN.

Syracuse went out two days later and beat Eastern Michigan by 36 points. It was the seventh straight win to start the season. They ran off 13 more.

“Life’s about facing adversity,’’ said guard Brandon Triche. “I think we did that. I think it’s made us a better team. It’s kind of been a blessing in disguise because those things happened, it made us a really good team.

“It’s almost like, ‘What’s next?’ But you can’t really think like that. You have to just think positive about every situation.

“I think we did a good job of handling all the negative things that happened around this year, but you can’t have that thought that everyone’s against you. You know that it’s all about us and you go out and prove that we’re a good team.’’

The Orange stumbled just once in the regular season. It was in January, when they faced Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., without Melo, who had been ruled ineligible. He was averaging a little more than four blocks a game. The Irish threw a party from the 3-point line and hoarded all the rebounds, handing Syracuse a 67-58 loss.

But the Rubik’s cube never seemed more than a turn or two out of sync for the Orange. They’re loaded with talent.

Without Melo, they plugged in freshman Rakeem Christmas and sophomore Baye Moussa Keita and quickly resumed winning. They have done the same in the tournament, with no reservations about how either has performed.

A week ago, there were so many questions about Melo they eventually sounded like white noise. But Christmas has grabbed 18 rebounds and scored 13 points as a plug-and-chug center, and the machine keeps moving along.

“We didn’t feel any pressure at all,’’ said senior forward Kris Joseph, “because we were placed in that situation during the season where Rakeem and Baye came in for Fab and did a tremendous job for us. So we didn’t lose hope.

“We still had a lot of expectations for ourselves. Outside of us, a lot of people doubted us, but as far as the team, the coaching staff went, we had the utmost confidence in ourselves and we knew we could play well without Fab.’’

Embracing adversity

They are not necessarily crowd favorites. As Syracuse was beating UNC-Asheville, 72-65, in the first-round game, the crowd at the Consol Energy Center booed every time the school’s name appeared on the scoreboard.

Senior point guard Scoop Jardine joked that they were saying his name.

“I didn’t hear it,’’ he said. “I thought they were ‘Scooping.’ ’’

Then he brushed it off entirely.

“We’ve been in hostile environments,’’ Jardine said. “It don’t matter. I tell you one thing. I heard my dad. If I can hear him, they wasn’t that loud.’’

Syracuse came dangerously close to infamy. A lane violation here or an out-of-bounds call there, and UNC-Asheville could have become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1.

But there Boeheim was, moments after the game, curiously calm, as if the sweat-soaked win had been by 20 points and not a closer-than-it-appeared 7.

He gave UNC-Asheville credit, then got on to more pressing matters - targeting the couple of media outlets that had targeted him.

In a season of Syracuse sniping, USA Today had reported that the team’s graduation rate was lower than 50 percent and that it may not be eligible for the 2013 tournament.

The report contained a soup of alphabets, a chalkboard’s worth of formulas and percentages. But for Boeheim, it was just fact-checking as chin-checking.

“I don’t think Harvard was punished when Bill Gates left early,’’ he said. “I don’t think he did too badly. We’ve also had five or six guys who left early, went to the NBA, played, and came back and graduated. We helped them graduate.

“We have two or three right now that are very close to graduating who are done playing with their NBA careers. So education is paramount to me.’’

For Boeheim, it was something that mattered at that moment, and once the moment was over, he was done with it.

That, in a nutshell, has been every distraction for the Orange.

“You’ve seen it throughout the whole year,’’ said forward C.J. Fair. “But that’s the thing about being a top-tier team - you’re going to have some people that like you, you’re going to have some people that hate you.

“We feel as though it’s us against the world, because of all the things that have been happening to us this year. But we’ve been fighting through adversity this whole year so we’ve just got to continue to fight through it.’’

More than that, they embrace it.

“I mean, we love it,’’ Waiters said. “We can’t do nothing about it but go out there and stack up wins and let them keep talking. They’re going to talk.

“Like they’ve said, when we’re winning, you can’t tell what’s going on with a team because we’re winning every game and it seems like nothing’s distracting us. That’s because it’s not.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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