West Virginia and Syracuse used to clash regularly back in the days of the old Big East — but the rivalry was put on hold for nine years after the Mountaineers made the move to the Big 12.
The two schools have had a couple of high-profile encounters on the football field in the time since in bowl games and on the women’s basketball court, but none have the gravity of the next one: a second round matchup in the NCAA Tournament in which both teams’ seasons are on the line.
Both programs have been through a lot in that near-decade, but there are some things that have not changed.
“Well, obviously their zone — he does such a great job of changing it up,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “When you start to attack a certain area, [Coach Jim Boeheim] does a great job of making adjustments.”
Fans will remember Syracuse’s aforementioned 2-3 zone, which has become a trademark defense for Boeheim and the 11-seed Orange. That scheme is still omnipresent for Syracuse.
“They just don’t stand in like your typical 2-3 zone,” Huggins said. “They raise the wings, they sink the wings, they change how they’re gonna play the middle guy, they’ll pressure you, then they won’t pressure you, they’ll try to gap everything. I mean, he’s the foremost authority on the 2-3 zone.”
Huggins and Boeheim go back decades and have developed a strong relationship. It started during Huggins’s playing days — his West Virginia squad took on Syracuse, who was coached by a rookie Boeheim, in 1976. Huggins scored six points as West Virginia held on to win, 83-78.
“Every time I see him, I bring it up and he doesn’t want to talk about it,” Huggins said.
Boeheim, of course, prefers to emphasize the rest of that Elite Eight season for the Orange, in which they finished 26-4 and No. 6 in the AP poll. WVU ended up 18-11 that season.
Now, the relationship culminates with a game in the Big Dance. This year’s iterations of the teams are more offensive-minded than those of years past, a sign of the changing times in the sport. Boeheim’s squad is led by his son, Buddy, who averages 17.7 points per game — the bulk of which come from behind the three-point arc.
“He’s terrific, he’s gotta be if not the best, one of the best shooters in college basketball,” Huggins said, while speculating Buddy’s talent came from his mother’s side.
The junior guard has spearheaded a massive turnaround for the Orange this season, and led his team in the first round with 30 points (including seven three-pointers). There were just two other double-digit scorers in the 78-62 win over San Diego State — guard Joseph Girard (13) and forward Marek Dolezaj (11).
No matter how the two programs have changed over the years, the respect between the two has not.
“We’ve known each other a long time, he’s a great guy,” Coach Boeheim said. “We kid each other all the time. He kids me about being old and I kid him about being big, but he’s a great coach. He’s what basketball’s all about. He loves basketball. He lives to coach, and he won’t quit coaching — ever. I mean they think I’m coaching, he’ll be coaching way..past me.”
Tip-off between the Orange and the No. 3 Mountaineers is set for 5:15 p.m. ET on CBS at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.