WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Jim Boeheim frowned and squinted through his eyeglasses. Perhaps it was the Verizon Center interview room lights. Maybe it was the question.
Did it matter?
Boeheim was asked about Syracuse's Big East tourney loss to Louisville a couple of weeks ago. Did he think, after that game, that he would be around for the Sweet 16?
“I can't remember that game,” he said. “Just can't remember.”
Boeheim could, of course. He might be 68 years old with a rim of gray circling his head, but his memory is fine. For instance, he remembered a game from 26 years ago. The one when Indiana and Keith Smart beat Syracuse 74-73 for the national championship.
“You never get over a game like that,” he said. “I thought we played as well as we could play. We had a lot of opportunities to win.
“You never get over that. Well, you almost never get over it. I got over it in 2003.”
In 2003, Syracuse won Boeheim's only national championship.
“(After the '87 loss) I probably thought about it for those (16) years most of the time,” he said. “I never think about it anymore.”
What Boeheim does think about is leading the fourth-seed Orangemen (28-9) over top-seed Indiana (29-6) tonight in an East Region Sweet 16 game.
Syracuse has excelled in its first two East Region games. It crushed Montana 81-34 and dominated California 66-60 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated.
“Our defense has been consistent all year,” Boeheim said. “Our offense … we haven't shot well in some games, and that's hurt us. One of the weaknesses that we had was we didn't shoot well in maybe six games. We've played better in the postseason because we've shot better, basically.”
A good-shooting Syracuse team is dangerous because of how well it plays defense. The Orangemen thrive with a 2-3 zone that features tall, fast, athletic players who were recruited in part for their ability to play this defense.
There is 6-6 Michael Carter Williams and 6-4 Brandon Triche in the backcourt and 6-8 C.J. Fair, 6-8 James Southerland and 6-9 Rakeem Christmas on the frontcourt. They hold opponents to 59.4 points, 37.3 percent shooting and 28.9 percent three-point shooting. They force 15.5 turnovers a game.
“We're long,” Southerland said, “and it's hard for people to score on us. Mike plays the top of the zone at 6-6, which gives anybody problems. Brandon is strong and gets rebounds. Me, C.J. and Rak take up the whole baseline. This is one of the best defensive teams we've played on.”
Indiana has to beat that defense. Much of the burden will fall on freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell. He's spent all season preparing for this moment.
Against James Madison, which didn't target him, he had 16 points, six assists and one turnover. Against Temple, which did target him, he had no points, three assists and three turnovers.
Still, the Hoosiers won both games to earn this Sweet 16 opportunity.
Ferrell likely won't be able to consistently drive through Syracuse's zone, so offensive success will depend on ball movement, passing and awareness.
“Trying to find gaps is tough because they're so long,” he said. “They do a great job of turning things over because of their length. It's tough to drive it for layups because you're going against the trees. If we move the ball, take care of it, and find the openings, we'll be OK.”
Syracuse's zone forces teams to take contested shots, often from behind the three-point line. The numbers suggest relying on three-point shooting is a bad idea, but IU has the long-range shooters who can make a difference.
Jordan Hulls shoots 46.0 percent from three-point range. Teammate Christian Watford is at 48.3 percent. Victor Oladipo is at 43.3 percent and hit the game-clincher last Sunday against James Madison. And don't forget reserve guard Remy Abell, who shoots at a team-leading 50.0 percent.
“We have to free open our shooters, especially Jordy and Christian,” Ferrell said. “They have to get lost in the zone. We have to attack it inside and out, and find the open shooters.”
It sounds easy, but against Syracuse, nothing is. So the Hoosiers have shot extra, which is saying something considering how much extra time they shoot anyway.
“We've been putting up a number of shots lately,” Watford said. “We've got a number of guys who can make them.”
The Orangemen, Southerland said, are well aware of those guys.
“I feel like I see them every time I turn on ESPN. They're a good team. They've been consistent all year. They're definitely a team you look forward to playing. They have great talent, great shooters and all-around great players. We feel we'll match up well against them.”
Boeheim has spent 37 years coaching to win those matchups. He was asked, for perhaps the 1,000th time in the last few years, about how much longer he'll coach. He previously joked about golfing, and that stirred up talk of imminent retirement. So he skipped the jokes and set the record straight. He'll be back next season to lead Syracuse in its move from the Big East to the ACC.
“I'm coaching next year. I'm thrilled. I've got a great challenge. I'm looking forward to it.”
And then, because he couldn't help it, he offered a twist.
“About September, if I don't want to coach, I won't coach.”
He squinted again, with a smile, this time.