SYRACUSE, N.Y.: Nothing distracts Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.
Controversy? Rumors? Negative headlines? No matter. All Boeheim has done is lift the Orange into the round of 16 for the fourth time in five years.
And for the second consecutive year, Boeheim has had to deal with off-court distractions related to academics. The team responded by winning 62-of-74 games over two seasons.
Now the fourth-seeded Orange (28-9) get to face top-seeded Indiana (29-6) in the semifinals of the East Regional tonight in Washington, D.C.
“This is a difficult tournament,” said Boeheim, fourth all-time with 50 tournament wins, behind Mike Krzyzewski (81), Dean Smith (65) and Roy Williams (60). “I’m more concerned about the travel and the wear. It’s difficult. There’s no question about that.”
The NCAA selection committee did Syracuse no favors, making the Orange the only top-four seed to be sent cross-country — to San Jose, Calif. — for the opening weekend of the tournament.
Not a problem for Boeheim and Co.
Syracuse defeated 13th-seeded Montana 81-34, the margin just two points off the school record for the largest in the tournament, then outlasted 12th-seeded California 66-60.
The Orange bested the Bears only about 50 miles from the school’s campus in Berkeley, a nice home-court advantage. The game was a sellout with plenty of Cal supporters in attendance.
That didn’t matter, either.
“We’re just going to have to do what we can do,” Boeheim said. “But when you get in this tournament and you get a tough environment you just — you want to get a win.”
Last season was both forgettable and unforgettable for Syracuse. Former associate coach Bernie Fine was fired in November 2011 amid allegations of sexually abusing two former ball boys — Fine was never charged — and star center Fab Melo was declared ineligible for the NCAA Tournament the day the Orange left for a first-round game in Pittsburgh.
Boeheim answered the challenge by guiding the team to a school-record 34 wins, just missing his fourth berth in the Final Four when the Orange lost to Ohio State in the East Regional final in Boston.
This season, senior forward James Southerland sat out six games because of an academic issue, and last week, the Orange took the floor a day after media reports said the university has been under investigation for possible NCAA violations, mostly in its basketball program, for at least a year.
As usual, Boeheim, whose 918 career wins rank second behind Krzyzewski among Division I men’s coaches, took it all in stride and said he wasn’t bothered by the timing.
“Same story they had last year at this time,” Boeheim said. “I guess that’s annual. I guess next year we’ll get it again.”
The school also acknowledged last year that college sports’ governing body had inquired into old allegations that players were allowed to practice and play despite being in violation of the school’s drug policy.
Through it all, the players have imitated their coach.
“Coach has done so much for the program,” sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “He just wants to win every game.”
Syracuse holds a 3-1 advantage in the all-time series with Indiana. The two programs have met once in the NCAA Tournament, and it was memorable. The Hoosiers won the 1987 championship game 74-73 on Keith Smart’s baseline jumper with 4 seconds left.
“We are just going to focus on what we need to do,” Southerland said.
Syracuse has advanced to the Final Four four times, and Boeheim is 3-for-3 in the national semifinals, winning his lone national championship a decade ago in New Orleans with Carmelo Anthony.
That’s the goal ahead, and after the season it will be time to begin preparing for another culture change — the switch to the Atlantic Coast Conference in July.
“Everything is about the team,” said longtime assistant Mike Hopkins, the coach in waiting. “When he can have such a deep focus on what needs to be accomplished today — every day — I think that’s what separates the elite.”
At age 68, Boeheim knows he’s close to retiring but still has no idea when.
“I’ve been thinking about retirement for about 15 years, that’s all I can tell you,” he said. “I think everybody, once they get to 60-something, they’re thinking about retirement, too. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to. I certainly am going to sooner rather than later.
“Whenever we play bad during the season, I want to retire, believe me, and sometimes even when we play good,” Boeheim added. “I know I’m really getting close is when we play good [and] I’m thinking about retiring.
“You have to let it all get away and see how you feel and what you want to do. I’m excited about the move that we’re making to the ACC. I think it’s a great challenge.”
Just like all the others recently.