Men's Basketball

Gery: Boeheim’s rapid rise from 800 to 900 wins fueled by keen eye for talent, strong recruiting classes

Jim Boeheim is already a legend. His name was etched in college basketball lore when he joined the exclusive 800-win club on Nov. 9, 2009.

Only six other coaches achieved the feat before Boeheim did that night in Syracuse’s season opener against Albany. A little more than three years later, Boeheim is on the cusp of celebrating his 900th win. If Syracuse (9-0) can take down Detroit (6-4) at the Carrier Dome on Monday night, he’ll add his name to a list that includes Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski as the only coaches to reach the milestone in Division-I history.

And he’ll have done it just 116 games since No. 800, making this the most successful run of Boeheim’s 37-year career.

“People always talk about guys as they get older,” said Steve Lappas, a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports Network. “Well, here’s a guy who’s just getting better.”

As questions persist about how much longer the 68-year-old Hall of Famer will lead Syracuse, he’s won 86 percent of his games in the last three-plus years. In the process, Boeheim’s established the Orange – ranked No. 4 in the nation this season – as a perennial Final Four and national title contender.

The run started with the 2009-10 season, the same one that started with his 800th win. Senior guard Brandon Triche started as a freshman that year, helping SU to a No. 1 seed and favorable path to the Final Four. The season ended sooner than expected in an upset to Butler, but it set the foundation for Boeheim to reach 900 and for the program to remain among the nation’s elite.

A 27-win campaign followed before Boeheim led the 2011-12 Orange to another No. 1 seed and the best regular season in program history. The team finished the year in the Elite Eight with a 34-3 record.

But this year, the train continues to roll despite losing Scoop Jardine, Fab Melo, Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters.

How? Recruiting.

“You can lose a Kris Joseph, you can lose a Melo and you still get good players coming back the following year,” former SU guard Dwayne “Pearl” Washington said. “We have guys that are All-Americans that are sitting on the bench.”

This year’s star point guard Michael Carter-Williams fits the bill. The McDonald’s All-American didn’t start a single game as a freshman last season. He rarely saw the court, stuck behind Jardine, Triche and Waiters as they led the team to the Big East title, No. 1 seed and 34 wins.

A year later, Carter-Williams leads the nation with 10.8 assists per game and serves as an example of how Boeheim has gone from 800 to 899 wins so quickly.

Boeheim doesn’t need future stars to be stars right away. He doesn’t even need them to play right away on his loaded rosters. So they sit and they develop and they get ready to fill the role of their predecessor.

The cycle is fueled by the recruiting process Washington mentioned. Well before they reach Syracuse, the head coach recognizes the future stars.

“I’ve said this many times – he has probably the best eye for talent out of anybody in the country,” said Lappas, who was the head coach at Villanova from 1992 to 2001. “And I’ve meant that.

“I used to tell my assistants, ‘Hey, just go watch where Boeheim’s sitting, that’s where you should go sit too,’ when we’d go to recruit and watch kids play.”

His keen eye for talent that fits into his system has been the driving force behind his success. He knows what he wants in a player and he knows when he’s found it.

It doesn’t matter if they’re a five-star McDonald’s All-American like Carter-Williams or a three-star local product like Triche. Boeheim takes his players, molds them to wreak havoc in his 2-3 zone and gives them freedom to make plays on the offensive end.

“The one thing Boeheim doesn’t try to do, he doesn’t try to change people’s game,” said Washington, who played at SU from 1983-86. “He tries to make sure that you work hard and you do what you got to do.”

That confidence in his players rubs off on them as they mirror his personality. And it all translates to wins for the head coach.

He enters Monday night’s contest one win away from 900 — one win away from joining Knight and Krzyzewski in another exclusive club.

“What can you say?” Lappas said. “Obviously, he’s one of the all-time greats.”

That was true in 2009. Now, he’s just adding to his legend, getting better with age as he does it.

Ryne Gery is a staff writer at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at rjgery@syr.edu.

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