WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s no longer a conference game, and given the fact that both teams are likely bound for the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome, it’s now a relatively meaningless December non-conference game between a team that probably won’t win the Big East and a team that probably isn’t going to win the ACC.
Good luck explaining that to Georgetown and No. 14 Syracuse.
Or their fans.
It was business as usual for them, a sea of Orange flooding the bars of D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood prior to the first game between the two arch-rivals since the Orange took down Georgetown in overtime during the 2013 Big East tournament. As has become commonplace for when these games get played in the District, the upper deck of the Verizon Center was a sea of orange and navy blue. Meanwhile, the Georgetown season-ticket holders that meander to their seats in the middle of the first half when teams like Bryant and Maryland-Eastern Shore visit the Phone Booth were there, beer already in hand, before the lights went down for Georgetown’s introductions.
The rivalry was officially renewed, the 33-month hiatus doing little to quell the healthy dislike between the two programs. The Verizon Center was packed, the atmosphere was awesome, and, as always, John Thompson Jr. — the man responsible for sparking this rivalry — was perched on the baseline, watching over his son, who now runs the program Pops built into a national power.
The only thing that was missing was the bespectacled curmudgeon himself.
48 hours before Syracuse was to tip off in the Verizon Center, the NCAA finally ruled on a Syracuse appeal of the punishment that was handed down earlier this year for violations that were committed within the program. Jim Boeheim’s nine-game suspension was no longer going to be put off until the start of ACC play.
It was going into effect immediately.
That’s why Boeheim wasn’t on the sideline on Saturday afternoon, instead watching the game at home on the couch by himself. That’s why longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins was coaching his first career game, a moment that he’s been waiting for for a long, long time. Hop has been with the Syracuse program for more than half of his life. After playing for Syracuse for four seasons, he’s been on Boeheim’s staff for two decades. He bleeds Orange as much as anyone in Upstate New York, a region that cares about their college hoops almost as much as Kentucky cares about their’s.
Hop has long been a named that pops up during the coaching carousel. He’s been in the mix for more than a few jobs, but has yet to make it past the interview stage. Why hire someone you know is going to be gone the second the 71-year old Boeheim decides to call it a career?
“I’ve been preparing myself to be a head coach for 20 years,” Hopkins said. “It’s always what I wanted to be and I always visualize myself doing it. I was really excited to go out there. First game ever is one of the greatest rivalries in college basketball was kind of surreal.”
But it was more than that, too.
You see, during Boeheim’s suspension, not only is he not allowed on the sidelines during games or at practices while he’s away, he’s not allowed to speak to anyone on the team. Not the players, not the coaches, not the managers. He can’t even send Hop a text telling him he did an admirable job as a Division I head coach for the first time in his life.
He’s completely isolated.
And for Hop, that’s the toughest part.
“Imagine all of a sudden someone came and said you can’t talk to your father for a month and they live down the street,” Hop said, struggling to hold back tears for the second time during his press conference. “That’s tough.”
The first time?
It was when he explained that the Orange had left a seat open on the bench, a message to the coach that they cannot contact that he’s still with them now.
“I wanted this win for him tonight,” Hop said.
“I think it’s getting to him a little bit,” senior guard Trevor Cooney said. “It’s a tough situation to be in but I think he’s handling it well.”
Boeheim played as much of a role in making this rivalry a thing as John Thompson Jr. did. He built the program into a national title contender the same way Big John did the Hoyas, but he, too, was unafraid of creating a firestorm with what he said publicly about the Hoyas. Big John told us that Manley Fieldhouse was officially closed. Boeheim told us that Michael Graham punched his player, and that the better team didn’t win.
Unlike Boeheim, Big John’s coaching career came to an end, but he is omnipresent within the Georgetown program, forever perched on the Verizon Center baseline, posted in the back of every press conference, unafraid of piping up and letting an unwitting reporter know how he feels about a dumb question.
I’m not here to stand up for Boehiem or to say his punishment was wrong. His program cheated under his watch and he opted, last February, to impose a postseason ban in the middle of the season, meaning his seniors would never get to play in an ACC or NCAA tournament game again.
I’m not here to fight a public relations battle for him.
But I will lament the fact that the NCAA couldn’t have held out on their ruling until Monday.
Georgetown students will probably disagree. The “Where is Boeheim?” chants started during warmups. The Georgetown Stonewalls, a group of fans that sit in the lower bowl near the visitor’s bench, put together a tifo with pictures of Boeheim looking embarrassed and the NCAA’s statement on his violations. They enjoyed taking their shots at him almost as much as they enjoyed the win.
But this game — this rivalry, this event — just wasn’t the same without Boeheim stalking the sidelines. The renewal of the rivalry deserved to have both of the men that ignited it there.
The game itself wasn’t much to speak of.
Senior big man Bradley Hayes led the way with 21 points and 10 boards and Isaac Copeland chipped in with 14 points and four boards of his own as Georgetown knocked off No. 14 Syracuse, 79-72.
“He’s a senior at Georgetown playing against Syracuse,” John Thompson III said. “If he’s not fired up for this game we made a lot of mistakes he last four years.”
The Hoyas jumped out to a 26-12 lead midway through the first half on the strength of their front court, as Marcus Derrickson and Copeland were able to pick apart the Orange 2-3 zone from the high post. JT III is known for a Princeton-style offense that makes man-to-man defenses pay for being overaggressive, but on Saturday afternoon, his Hoyas put on a clinic in how to run zone offense.
Derrickson was the unsung hero. Not only did he finish with 13 points, ten boards and a pair of assists, but he also took three key charges, two of which came early in the second half as Georgetown was able to extend the lead out to 20 points. “I love it when Marcus rebounds like he did today,” JT III said. Syracuse made a run late in the game, cutting the lead to single-digits with time left on the clock and getting as close as six points late, but the Hoyas made just enough free throws to avoid a complete collapse late.
The Orange really struggled on the offensive end of the floor in the first half, shooting just 2-for-13 from beyond the arc as the Hoyas made a concerted effort to run them off the three-point line. Hopkins credited Georgetown’s ball-screen defense. Cooney said it was due to the way that the Hoyas help on the weak side, but regardless of why, the point remains the same: This Syracuse team relies heavily on the three-ball, and their struggles to get good looks from deep is why they found themselves in a huge hole early.
The biggest issue for the Orange is when they face teams with powerful front lines. Their best offensive lineup features Tyler Lydon at the five and Tyler Roberson at the four, but that leaves them susceptible to guys like Hayes, big men that can establish post position and score on duck-ins. DaJuan Coleman is really their only option at center, but he finished Saturday afternoon’s game without a single defensive rebound and takes away their ability to stretch the floor offensively.
The bottom line is that the Hoyas outplayed Syracuse.
This wasn’t just a result of Boeheim not being on the sideline.
“Mike, he’s been sitting on that bench over half his life,” JT III said, a statement meant as a compliment that also drove home a point: There should be no asterisk next to this game. Georgetown didn’t win because Boeheim was gone. “[Hop]’s not going to try to reinvent he wheel. It is what it is.”
“He’s had a lot of input in what they do as time has gone on.”
Big John has never been afraid of taking a shot at the Orange publicly.
In a moment of honesty, he may actually tell you it’s his favorite this to do. In addition to closing Manley Fieldhouse, Big John also said to a room full of reporters, after Georgetown’s 61-39 win over the Orange in their last regular season Big East tilt, “Kiss Syracuse goodbye!”
Did he have anything planned for today?
“I like to make him mad,” Big John, never one to shy away from verbal battle, said of Boeheim, with a laugh. “He’s already mad.”