Tuesday, April 1, 2003

A year after NIT, Orangemen in Final Four

By John Kekis
The Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Kueth Duany is glad to be around for his senior season at Syracuse, especially after last year's disappointment.

The Orangemen didn't make the NCAA tournament field in 2002, but coach Jim Boeheim's team came back strong this season, advancing to the Final Four with a 63-47 win over top-seeded Oklahoma in the East Regional final on Sunday.

"This is the best feeling I've had since I've been at Syracuse," said Duany, the only senior among Syracuse's starting five. "I just want to keep it rolling."

The Orangemen (28-5) will play Texas (26-6) in the national semifinals on Saturday night in New Orleans.

While Oklahoma, Indiana, Kansas and eventual champion Maryland were making their way to the Final Four last year, Duany and the Orangemen were back in Syracuse, trying to become the first team to win both the preseason and postseason NIT. They lost to South Carolina in the semifinals.

The Orangemen had gone 20-10 during the 2001-02 regular season, but they stumbled to a 4-8 finish. And when Villanova beat the Orangemen in the first round of the Big East tournament, Boeheim knew they wouldn't be going to the NCAA tournament.

"In practice an hour and a half before the selection show, Coach pretty much told us, 'Sorry. Let's get ready for next year,"' sophomore center Craig Forth said.

"This year we walked into the room to watch the selection show, and everybody was smiling, happy, ready to go," Forth said. "It makes it a lot more fun to actually be one of the teams playing for a national championship, knowing that we can do something special."

Boeheim, who has 651 wins in his 27 years at Syracuse, thought that was possible before this season started.

"I thought we had better size than we had last year, and our young guys last year weren't ready," said Boeheim, who also guided Syracuse to the national championship game in 1987 and 1996. "Some freshmen are ready. We had three freshmen (Hakim Warrick, Josh Pace, and Forth) last year that weren't ready, but that we felt would be ready as sophomores. And we had the three freshmen coming in who we felt were ready. We felt that we were going to have a chance to be a really good team."

Not too many others did, it seemed, even with freshman forward Carmelo Anthony averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds a game and wowing NBA scouts with his versatile play.

Despite impressive home victories over Valparaiso, Georgia Tech, and Missouri, the Orangemen didn't make the national rankings until January. Now they're playing in the Superdome against the Longhorns, the only No. 1 seed left.

The last two times the Orangemen played in that building in the NCAA tournament, they lost - to Minnesota in the Southeast Regional in 1990, and to Indiana for the 1987 national championship.

Keith Smart gave the Hoosiers a 74-73 victory in that memorable title game, hitting a baseline jumper with 4 seconds left after Derrick Coleman missed the front end of a 1-and-1 for Syracuse.

Boeheim never wants his team to go through an ordeal like that again.

"This team, if we go down there and don't play well, then all these kids will be disappointed," he said. "And they'll end up being the ones that think about it the rest of their lives, just like Derrick still thinks about missing that 1-and-1.

"I want to get these guys prepared to win down there, not for me, because I've had a great career. I've had 27 years. I'd be disappointed for these kids if we can't go down there and play well."

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