By Dave Skretta
AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS — Jim Boeheim is back where he feels most comfortable this time of year, glad-handing a countless stream of well-wishers as Syracuse prepared to play Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s a whole lot more comfortable than the recliner he was in last year.
The Orange had to sit out March Madness after a lengthy investigation by the NCAA found a history of improper benefits and academic misconduct stretching back years. For the first time since 1993, Boeheim and his team were forced to watch postseason tournaments unfold on television.
“I’m sure it was really tough for him,” Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney said Thursday. “I mean, he’s been coaching for a long time. And he’s been in the tournament almost all those years. And I think for him not to be a part of it was really tough for him.”
The sanctions, which included the loss of eight scholarships, also kept Boeheim on the shelf for nine games earlier this season. The Orange (19-13) won just four times during that stretch.
Syracuse found its stride when Boeheim returned, winning eight of nine in January and February. That proved to be enough to earn an at-large bid, even after a loss to Pittsburgh in the first round of the ACC Tournament, and make Boeheim the “happiest I’ve ever been on Selection Sunday.”
“It’s obviously been a difficult year,” he said, “to go through everything that’s happened.
Things won’t get a whole any easier for the No. 10-seed Orange on Friday.
Seventh-seeded Dayton (25-7) captured a share of the Atlantic-10 regular-season title, became a Top 25 mainstay and now has the experience of having been to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
That includes knocking the Orange out of the field two years ago.
“I would say as much as anything, a win like that against Syracuse — advancing to the Sweet 16 — may have as much reason for us being here for the third year in a row as anything,” Flyers coach Archie Miller said. “When you’re able to make a run like we made a couple of years ago, I think it carries over to your players’ experience level, big-game mentality in the last couple of regular seasons.”
As the Orange and Flyers prepare to meet at the Scottrade Center, here are some key story lines:
WINNING FORMULA: Dayton beat the Orange two years ago in Buffalo by relying on its defense, holding Syracuse without a 3-pointer for the first time in 665 games. The result was a 55-53 victory. “The most memorable thing about it was how tough we played,” the Flyers’ Dyshawn Pierre said. “There was a lot of ups and downs and we stuck together, and that’s the biggest thing we need to bring to this game.”
HOME COOKE-ING: Boeheim wasn’t the only one sitting out last year: Charles Cooke, the Flyers’ leading scorer, had to redshirt after transferring from James Madison. “I did everything I could do in the offseason, in the summertime, been trying to make these guys better in practices,” said Cooke, who led the Dukes to the NCAA Tournament the previous year. “It just really feels good to be here.”
IN THE ZONE: Syracuse still runs Boeheim’s famous 2-3 zone, while the Flyers prefer a pack-line defense that clogs the lane. Both are highly effective. “They’re really competitive,” the Orange’s Tyler Roberson said, “so we’re going to have to match their intensity.”
FAMILIAR FOES: Dayton assistant Allen Griffin played for Boeheim at Syracuse before serving as an administrative assistant. Meanwhile, Dayton guard John Crosby and Syracuse forward Tyler Lydon were teammates at New Hampton School in New Hampshire, and Cooke and Orange guard Malachi Richardson were teammates at Trenton Catholic Academy in New Jersey. “We’ve been like brothers since we were young,” Richardson said. “He texted me before the bracket was released and said, ‘We’re probably going to play y’all.’”
UP NEXT: The winner gets second-seeded Michigan State or No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State for a spot in the Midwest Regional semifinals. “Syracuse has been really successful with the first games in the past,” Roberson said. “We want to continue that and start off with a win.”