CHICAGO -- The magic of the NCAA Tournament so often lies in the charm of the underdogs, the teams that have made "Cinderella" a term as synonymous with college basketball as it is with a child's fairy tale. There's no textbook definition for what constitutes a Cinderella, but they all seem to share certain immediately identifiable qualities.
These are teams with double-digit seeds next to their names, and teams that enter the tournament with zero expectations. They aren't suppose to win one game in March, let alone make the second weekend. And they definitely aren't supposed to find themselves one win away from the Final Four.
In that sense, Syracuse would seem to fit the broader criteria for a Cinderella. Few expected the Orange to even make the field of 68 and no one anticipated they would be celebrating a dramatic, last-second win over Gonzaga to punch a ticket to the Elite Eight. But even with a No. 10 beside its name, Syracuse knows its no Cinderella. It's not pretending to be.
"We've won a national championship," freshman forward Tyler Lydon after the win. "I don't think too many teams that have won a national championship can be called a Cinderella."
Cinderellas don't play in the ACC, Cinderellas don't have four- and five-star recruits up and down the roster and Cinderellas are not led by a coach that should be closing in on 1,000 victories if not for the vacated games the NCAA refuses to recognize.
There's another major difference, too. America loves an underdog story, especially one that stretches as far as the Elite Eight. The thought of this Syracuse team as a Cinderella feels so unsatisfying partially because they aren't pulling many unaffiliated fans along for the ride with them.
Most college basketball fans love to hate Jim Boeheim. As recently as a month ago, Boeheim publicly blasted junior Tyler Roberson, telling the media "If I had anyone else he wouldn't play a minute." It wasn't exactly an out-of-character comment for a coach with a long-standing history of ripping his own players, especially when they have the gall to leave school early to enter the NBA Draft.
Then there's the issue of this particular Syracuse team feeling unworthy of the opportunity. The Orange made history before the tournament even began by sporting the worst RPI ever for a team given an at-large bid. Syracuse was a No. 9 seed in its own conference tournament, where the Orange were defeated in their first game to give them five losses in their last six.
It's easy to say Syracuse shouldn't even be here in more ways than one.
To their credit, Syracuse fans absolutely do not care about any of this, nor should they. If anything, it's made this run even more fun. The Orange faithful are embracing the hate, laughing at anyone who doubted them and penning patronizing apologies to the rest of the country for "ruining" the tournament. It's the right attitude to have, but it's probably not getting them any swing votes, either.
No matter. Here's Jim Boeheim again proving his chops as one of the best coaches in college basketball history, picking his nose at the haters all over the country. Syracuse is in the Elite Eight and you're not. Hope you enjoy watching zone defense because it's sticking around for at least a few more days.
In classic Boeheim fashion, the coach sounded condescending even when he was trying to be complimentary after the game. In addressing his team's path to the Elite Eight, one that didn't have the Orange face a team seeded higher than No. 7 Dayton, Boeheim took a shot at anyone who dared to diminish the quality of Syracuse's run.
"I thought Dayton was pretty darned good until we beat them, and then all of a sudden they weren't any good," Boeheim said. "I thought Middle Tennessee was pretty good until we beat them, and then they weren't any good. So, I guess now Gonzaga probably won't be any good tomorrow morning."
You could call that "Peak Boeheim," using the spotlight to antagonize as much as to highlight the inspiring efforts of his own players. It's perfect, all of it, all the way down to the Instagram video Carmelo Anthony's wife posted that had him quoting DJ Khaled.
"They don't want us to win!"
He isn't wrong.
None of this is the players' fault, of course, and these players are pretty easy to root for. Michael Gbinije, in his fifth year of college basketball, has found his groove as a 6'5 lead guard who can score, facilitate and impose his will on a game as well as any point guard left in the field. Freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon are both fun to watch, and it feels like they're only getting started.
Then there's Roberson, who has been playing very solid ball during Syracuse's three tournament wins. That's a feel-good story after Boeheim put his name in national headlines for all the wrong reasons not long ago.
The United Center was filled with orange on Friday night, another reminder why Syracuse is here in the first place. Do you think Monmouth fans would have traveled this well? It might not be fair and it might not be likable, but it's impossible to argue with the results.
There's eight teams standing in college basketball, and Syracuse is one of them. Hate them all you want. At this point, it could fuel them all the way to the Final Four.
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March Madness: Does 6-seed Notre Dame qualify as a Cinderella story?
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