Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Roy Williams at Kansas each arrived at the 2003 Final Four as a respected head coach, but with one important item missing—a national championship ring. Boeheim lost the NCAA final in 1987 and 1996, while Williams had made three previous Final Fours. In 2003, Boeheim and Williams ended up on a collision course to meet on Monday night.
Syracuse had a young team, built around Carmelo Anthony. It was widely accepted the freshman Anthony was going pro, and he was the first of the “one-and-done” phenomena that marks college recruiting today.
Anthony was joined by fellow freshman, guard Gerry McNamara. A sophomore forward in Hakeem Warrick, blessed with long arms that made him a force in Boeheim’s zone defense, filled out the core of a young and talented team.
The Orange were the #3 seed in the East Regional. They beat Oklahoma State in the second round and got themselves to nearby Albany for the regionals. After barely surviving Auburn, the Syracuse zone disrupted top seed Oklahoma in a surprisingly easy 63-47 win.
When you beat a team by 16 points, it’s difficult to use the site venue as an excuse, but one prominent observer did feel it wasn’t fair for Oklahoma, as the higher seed, to have to play in such an obviously pro-Syracuse location. The observer? Jim Boeheim.
The classy attempt by the Syracuse coach to cut the defeated Sooners some slack deserves our admiration, but not our agreement. If it had been a tight game, sure. But the real story was how the Syracuse zone was disrupting good teams.
Another subplot of this Syracuse tournament run is that they seemed to keep meeting the Big 12. Oklahoma was one of two #1 seeds to come out of that conference. The other one wasn’t Kansas, but the Texas Longhorns—whom the Orange defeated in a fast-pace, entertaining national semifinal game at the Final Four.
Kansas had two future pros, Nick Collision and Kirk Hinrich, who are both still playing in the NBA for playoff teams over a decade later. Wayne Simien would likely be doing the same if not for a later knee injury. The Jayhawks joined Texas and Oklahoma in making the Big 12 the focal point of college basketball in 2003 and KU was the #2 seed in the West.
The Jayhawks won high-profile battles in the regionals, edging Duke and Arizona, and then the Jayhawks buried Dwayne Wade’s Marquette team in the Final Four. By the time the national championship game arrived, all the talk was whether this was Williams’ final game as Kansas head coach. The North Carolina job had come open and with Williams’ strong ties to the program—a former assistant with a close relationship to Tar legend Dean Smith—the rumors of his desire to go back to Chapel Hill were well-established.
Syracuse seemed to have the championship game in control, leading 53-42 at half and 76-64 with five minutes to go. Then Boeheim must have felt like a rerun of a horror movie was turned on. Just as had been the case at this same venue in 1987 against Indiana, the Orange started missing free throws.
Kansas closed to within three, and Hinrich missed a three-pointer with 24 seconds left. Warrick continued the free throw nightmare, missing two and giving Kansas new life. The sophomore forward redeemed himself by blocking an open trey from Kansas’ Michael Lee. The Jayhawks only had time for one more desperation toss after that and it missed.
Syracuse was finally champions. The Big 12 might have been the best league, but the Orange validated themselves by beating four of its teams, including the three best, in their 2003 NCAA Tournament run.
In the aftermath of the game, Williams angrily dismissed a CBS reporter who asked him about his coaching future saying there were kids in the locker room that he loved and that “I don’t give a (bleep) about North Carolina right now.” After correctly standing up for his players in the pain of the moment, Williams eventually settled down and of course did end up coaching UNC.
Williams would eventually win his elusive national title with North Carolina. In fact, he would win two of them. Kansas would get back to the top themselves, in 2008 under the leadership of Bill Self. But this night on the Bayou in 2003 belonged to Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, who had finally reached college basketball’s version of the Promised Land.