Tonight, for the last time as Big East opponents, and potentially for the last time ever, UConn and Syracuse will play basketball. In many ways it will be a unique matchup. For the first time in almost three decades one of the teams will have a head coach not named Jim. It'll also be unique because UConn, hampered by NCAA sanctions and roster defections, will have a talent deficit compared to their traditionally equally-matched foe. But in other ways it won't be unique. For instance, Syracuse will be using an academically questionable key player. Jim Boeheim will play a 2-3 zone. Syracuse will wear unsightly orange uniforms that proudly (for some reason) proclaim "SYRACUSE" and UConn will match with their sterling white duds.
Most importantly, the 14,000 people in attendance at the XL Center will be rooting like hell for their team of choice and rooting even harder against their opponent. But today, on the last day these two teams will meet, I want to encourage UConn fans to step back and stop hating Syracuse. Really, I do.
I know, it sounds absurd: Stop hating Syracuse? How could I advocate such a thing. Well, think about it. Imagine growing up as a child in upper, upper, upper, upper New York and knowing that your career options realistically boiled down to three options: you could be an ice farmer, you could be an ice farmer's assistant, or, if you were lucky, you could get a rare and lucrative job writing term papers for Syracuse basketball players. That has to be unbearably bleak, and when you add in the economic loss created by the region's willful ignorance of the month of March, it just gets worse. Can you blame these people for becoming angry and bitter and clinging desperately to the only soft thing in their life: an anthropomorphic orange that looks like Boeheim's head with a pair of legs? Of course not. In that environment you'd turn into a monster too.
But don't let your sympathy stop there, because embracing Syracuse, is the fire to life in upstate New York's frying pan. Take a second and picture life once you've thrown yourself into Laurie Fine's waiting arms. Year after year after year you would watch Jim Boeheim bring in some of the top recruiting classes in the country. He'd bring monster athletes to Syracuse, the type of payer most schools would kill to have, and then, what would he do with them? He'd stick them in the 2-3 zone defense, a scheme that was created to help short, chubby kids keep the score close in their intramural games. Just imagine what that would do to your psyche, knowing that not only would you have to spend 30 games a year watching this talent be wasted, but also knowing that your favorite players would be so underdeveloped when they left town that you'd be doomed to following D-league trade news for the rest of their careers. Brutal.
And of course, that's all before you get to the whole postseason thing. Can you picture the lifetime scars left when someone warps their mind to claim that compiling a mountain of wins against the Colgates, Stony Brooks and
LeMoynes (whoops) of the world is more impressive than postseason success. The postseason is just so random they'll claim. You never know when the guy you knew should have been ineligible all along will get removed from the team (again), robbing you of your chance to not beat Kentucky. They'll tell you consistency is much more important, after all, who needs six wins in March when you can have 17 in November and December? And, if you have any semblance of a soul, your heart will ache.
Look, I know, it may have been hard to stay with me this long. How on earth could you have sympathy for Syracuse fans, especially since they're decamping the Big East for the ACC. I know, I know, they'll tell you how the change marks a new dawn for Syracuse athletics. They'll tell you that UConn is doomed. They'll tell you that playing second banana in New York has nothing on being the ninth most important person in Charlotte. They'll tell you all about tv contracts that don't pay them a dime personally, all the while ignoring the fact that while the Selection Committee looks at a lot of stupid numbers, ESPN's balance sheet isn't one of them.
You know who Syracuse is? Syracuse is Harry Ellis, and even if you don't know who Harry Ellis is, you know of him. Harry Ellis is the douchebag second-tier corporate villain in all your favorite movies. Harry Ellis is never actually the one in charge, but he acts like he is. Harry Ellis dresses nice, Harry Ellis makes money, but Harry Ellis never wins, and Harry Ellis is infuriating, right up until the point that Hans Gruber shoots him in the face:
Don't like Die Hard? More of a Robocop guy? Fine, then Syracuse is Dick Jones, a striver who goes very far right up until the second that he doesn't. The type of guy who thinks he has it all figured out until he realizes he's going to a league where his rivalry week game won't be against Georgetown, but against BC, which means from now until eternity, Syracuse fans will have to watch Boston College basketball not once, but twice a year. Syracuse is Dick Jones and Dick Jones is Syracuse:
Meanwhile UConn will stay behind, honest and true, defending the glory of the Big East. Sure times seem tough or the odds seem long, but that didn't stop John McClain, and it didn't stop Robocop, so it won't stop us. Part of me will miss Syracuse after tonight, but it's okay that they're leaving. They've got their road, we've got ours, and someone who needs as much sympathy as they do is going to struggle on a path where we skip escalators and opt to take the stairs instead.
Now, if I can get serious for a moment I'd like to say one last thing: I don't know what the future holds -- UConn could be mere months away from joining Syracuse in the ACC, or the two may never play again -- but I do know that the strength of both teams over the past 25 years has been a good thing for both. The fact that they've played each other, played hard and played well has been a positive no matter if you wear orange or blue. I don't mind wishing them the best in the ACC, but that won't stop me from rooting for UConn to beat the hell out of them tonight. Here's hoping we meet again, and soon.