0 Comments Published on 4.10.2016 by John Brennan
|NRG with some awesome on-court graphics during player introductions|
Four weeks ago, in the hours preceding the Selection Show, I had resigned myself to the fact that I'd be trekking up to the Carrier Dome a few times to see some NIT games. But then the Selection Committee looked favorably upon Syracuse with a 10-seed, the team started playing really well, had some luck go their way, and then boom, Houston for the Final Four! As I had in 2003 when I was in school, and in 2013, I had to find my way to the Final Four. I had never been to Houston, so this would be a treat in and of itself. An expensive treat, but... from what I've been led to believe, you can't take it with you.
Unfortunately it was pretty late and I was wiped when I got in on Friday night, so I decided to just get a good night's sleep before the Final Four festivities the next day. Saturday I took an Uber from my hotel near the airport, down to the downtown area for some lunch. Then I hopped on Houston's Metro Lightrail down to the NRG Stadium area. I met up with Orange::44 founder Matt Glaude and some other friends for some pregame adult beverages, and then made our way into the stadium. It's right next to the old Astrodome, and is HUGE! Somehow it looks bigger inside, if that's possible. I can't imagine the horrible sight lines for the floor & first section seats. If the Carrier Dome ever tries moving the court to the 50-yard line, I really hope they take things like that into consideration.
The first National Semifinal was Oklahoma vs. Villanova, in a rematch of a game from earlier this season, played in Hawaii. The Sooners had dominated that game 78-55, and I guess the Wildcats were bound and determined to not allow that to happen. So much so that Nova put the pedal to the metal from the opening tip and never let up. This game was over in the first half when it was 42-28. Somehow it got worse in the second half, as Villanova went on to win 95-51. Ahead of the Syracuse game, we all figured seeing a 44-point margin of victory as a good luck sign.
As the Sooner fans quickly cleared out of the stadium, an excited nervousness (maybe a nervous excitement?) settled over the Syracuse fans in attendance. During player introductions, I thought NRG Stadium did a great job of putting on a show. I'm not sure what was shown on TV, but hopefully you can tell how cool it was by the picture above. And then, well, the game. It didn't go how we wanted it to. But, one hell of a run by this team, to have overcome the self-imposed ban last year, Boeheim's suspension this year, and to get to play these games just really gives a great sense of accomplishment for these young men. I especially feel happy for Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney. I'll have a game recap at the end of this post.
Sunday a lot of Orange fans still in Houston would be getting together for the gamewatch of the women's Final Four game, but until then we had some time to kill. I got to experience my first ever Top Golf outing. I absolutely suck at golf -- I almost don't deserve to be a lawyer because of it! But Top Golf is a lot of fun, and I had one really good round! If you ever get a chance, do it! Anyway, the women's gamewatch was at Lucky's, and the place was at least three large rooms full of Syracuse fans. And we got to see the ladies play great against Washington to advance to the championship! After the game, I check out a beer bar called Flying Saucers -- which was a great place -- and a good segue to my Monday activities...
NASA. If you know me, you probably know that I'm been a big space geek for a long time. I never went to space camp as a kid (though I definitely would have if given the opportunity) and there was probably a point in time when I wanted to be an astronaut. So back when Syracuse had beat Virginia in the Elite Eight to make it to the Final Four in Houston, one of the first things I thought to myself was that if I went, I couldn't do the trip without making it to the Johnson Space Center. So on Monday, I did just that. Out front they have a big mock-up of a space shuttle along with the modified Boeing 747 used to transport the orbiter. It was pretty cool to be able to go inside each of them. The exhibits inside the museum were pretty cool, but if you ever go to the Space Center, be sure to book yourself a tram tour. On this particular day there were two tram options: one to go to astronaut training center, the other to go to Mission Control. I chose the latter. They brought us into the observation room adjoining the original mission control used for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions (newer & larger Mission Controls have been built and are in use in other parts of the building). But this was a great experience, and I highly recommend you do it if you find yourself in Houston. The end of the tram tour brought us to Rocket Park, where we could tour an old Saturn V rocket, like those used for the Apollo missions. You really can't appreciate the size and (probable) power of those rockets until you experience them in person.
From NASA, I made my way to 8th Wonder Brewing. This was a great place with some good beers and a lot of opportunities to have fun! It's almost a shame I didn't get to stay later, but I had to get to the Championship game. The group I was going with didn't have tickets -- we were purposely waiting until the last minute, hoping to find a really good deal. On the Light Rail from Downtown to the Stadium, we found tickets on StubHub in the 300-level with suite access! So we had already won in that regard. Then, my concern was not so much who I wanted to win the game, but just seeing a good game. And a good game I saw! Both Villanova and North Carolina battled the whole game, and kept it pretty close. In the second half, Nova built a lead, but you could feel the Tar Heels doing whatever they could to get back into it. NRG's crowd seemed 2-1 in favor of UNC, so no doubt the fans helped the Heels get the momentum swing back towards the end. When Marcus Paige hit that improbable 3-pointer to tie it up with 4.7 seconds left, the place was going absolutely nuts! It was mostly UNC fans around us, who had gone from doom to ecstasy in the snap of a finger. The prospect of the title game going to overtime felt both inevitable and exciting. Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball up the court, with us all expecting him to have to heave a half-court Hail Mary which would surely miss and send us to overtime. But instead he passed to a wide open Kris Jenkins, who nailed a three as time expired to grant Villanova its first championship since 1985. There was no doubt he got the shot off in time. If the place was going nuts when Paige tied it up, then NRG was a full-out looney bin at this point. I just couldn't believe I had just seen what I had just seen. I just kept saying "Wow" over and over (with some expletives mixed in). What a game! One for the ages!
So I had some friends who didn't go to that game, and instead went out to dinner & ended up watching the game at the official gamewatch bar for Villanova, Dogwood. There evidently had been like 15 people watching there during the game, but as soon as the game ended, it quickly became Nova Nation Central. I made my way there, and I can say the atmosphere rivaled what I experienced on Bourbon Street on April 7, 2003. Every time SportsCenter replayed the game winning shot, the place relived it and the excitement that went along with it. The bar played the Villanova fight song -- which all the fans knew the words to and sang along -- and we heard Bowling for Soup's 1985 at least once. Because they're still preoccupied... with 19... 19... 1985. But good for Villanova -- fun game, fun celebration, and I'm so happy I got to be a part of it.
And now, for the Syracuse game recap:
- In his senior swan song for Syracuse, Trevor Cooney had a great game and was the Orange's leading scorer with 22 points on 9-18 shooting, 4-8 from three, five rebounds, and three steals. If you asked me to recount what positive stat stands out the most to me in Cooney's career, it's his steals, his defensive effort. His career offensive stats are pretty good, but I think he got the raw end of over-hype. During his redshirt season, the coaches, the players, and the media all kept talking about this Trevor Cooney kid, who can shoot the lights out of the ball and is probably a better shooter than Gerry McNamara. And maybe all of that was true. But it never really translated into that kind of shooting once he played in real games. Because it didn't, I think we all developed a negative view of Trevor, that he wasn't living up to the expectations that had been set for him. Had we not had those expectations, we'd probably be able to objectively view his stats, and appreciate what he contributed to the offense through the years. You still couldn't call him clutch and he still wouldn't have any big down-the-stretch or game winning shots to look back on, but we'd like him a lot more than we do. But hey, heck of a career, Trevor. You should be proud.
- Michael Gbinije didn't have a fantastic final college basketball game, but he did have 12 points on 5-18 shooting; he missed all five attempts from three, turned the ball over four times, and fouled out. UNC, having played Syracuse twice before in 2016, knew it had to contain Gbinije, which it did. Jim Boeheim doesn't make a habit of taking transfers, and admitted he didn't want this one, but Duke's loss certainly became Syracuse's gain. Much has been said recently about how he's not Duke transfer Michael Gbinije, he's Syracuse senior Michael Gbinije. And I think he'll go down as one of the fan favorites for years to come. Such a mature guy, very likable, and a very good, consistent basketball player. I don't know where he'll land professionally, but I wish him the best, because he's earned it.
- Malachi Richardson was already a good player when he came to Syracuse, and for much of the season he played above his freshman standing. He showed some great poise in a lot of big games this season, really shined in the Tournament (particularly in the two games in Chicago), and had a great game in Houston: 17 points on 7-14 from the floor and 2-5 from three. He has been mum on his plans for next season (quite frankly he probably doesn't know), but I would expect him to take advantage of the new rule allowing players to submit their name, be evaluated, and then have an opportunity to withdraw and return to college. Personally I think another year in college will greatly improve his game and, in turn, his draft stock for 2017, but he's gotta do what's best for him, and we have to respect that.
- Syracuse shot 40.9% from the field, versus UNC's 53.8%. What really helped the Tar Heels was dominating in the paint -- 50-32.
- UNC held the advantage for much of the game, and was clearly the better team. At the 12:28 point in the second half, UNC held its largest lead at 17 points, before Syracuse made a comeback. Richardson's 3-pointer at 9:48 brought the margin to within seven points, and at that moment I truly thought Syracuse had it in them to win. We'd see another late-game comeback that we've been used to seeing, except this time Syracuse had over nine minutes to close a gap of just seven points. Unfortunately, over the next two minutes the Tar Heels grew that lead back up to 14. At that point, I just knew it was over. An inability to keep the game close at seven showed that it was near impossible to be able to get it back, with the way both teams were playing at that point.
- I'm not sure if the 83-66 final score really tells how close or not close this game was. But I guess it doesn't matter. We can just always remember how magical it was for this team to make a Final Four run when they were on the bubble of making the tourney to begin with.
And so, the 2015-2016 Syracuse Orange men's basketball season comes to an end. In the days since, we've already seen some transfers out of the program, a Tyler Lydon declaration that he'll be back, and the future for Malachi Richardson yet to be determined. The Orange finished the season ranked #10 in the Coaches Poll, and particularly if Mali returns next year, I'd expect the Orange to open the season right around there. For us Syracuse fans, there's a lot to be excited about looking ahead to next year: Georgetown & Duke in the Dome, a stacked team of returning players, a couple highly touted freshmen coming in, and momentum definitely on our side. Let's be thankful and proud of this team for laying that groundwork.