ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) — Upstate New York has a Tobacco Road feel these days.
Syracuse and Cornell — their campuses a mere 55 miles apart — are in the NCAA round of 16. Syracuse, the top seed in the West, is no great surprise. But Cornell, the 12th seed in the East, is the first Ivy League school to get this far since Penn in 1979.
“It’s exciting. It’s great for this area,” Cornell’s 7-foot center Jeff Foote, who grew up less than an hour away in Lockwood, N.Y., said Monday before the Big Red practiced. “I definitely don’t think this area is usually known as a basketball power, with the exception of Syracuse. It’s great to see two teams in the Sweet 16 representing upstate New York so well.”
A year ago New York had four teams in the tournament — Syracuse, Cornell, Binghamton, and Siena, and only Ohio had more. Siena made the tournament again this year for the third straight time and sixth overall, but the Saints lost to Purdue in the opening round.
On Thursday night at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse’s home court, Cornell will face top-seeded Kentucky in the East Regional. Meanwhile, the Orange play No. 5 Butler on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
Syracuse is the signature program in upstate New York and the Orange have never had another team from so close tag along with them so deep into the tournament. That it’s an Ivy League school makes it that much more amazing.
“I don’t think we should be surprised with the Cuse. It’s the norm,” said Cornell coach Steve Donahue, who could easily count the number of fans inside the 4,400-seat Newman Arena when he first took over a decade ago. “Obviously, it’s different down here. What I love is the area has embraced our team. They love college basketball.”
Newman Arena was filled to 90 percent capacity during the season, including a handful of sellouts. On Selection Sunday it was a madhouse, even though Cornell had won the conference championship the past three years.
The worldwide popularity that basketball enjoys today can be traced to Syracuse — it was the birthplace of the shot clock in 1954. Danny Biasone, one of the NBA’s founding fathers as owner of the Syracuse Nationals from 1946-63, and Leo Ferris, his general manager, introduced the 24-second shot clock in a scrimmage in a small gym at Biasone’s alma mater — Blodgett Vocational High School in Syracuse.
Renowned coaches Red Auerbach and Clair Bee were there, and they watched as Dolph Schayes, star of the Nats and the league’s first true power forward, joined a handful of other NBA players trying to get off decent shots.
Biasone and Ferris arrived at a 24-second limit by dividing the number of seconds in a 48-minute game (2,880) by the average number of shots taken in a game (120). Biasone, who scribbled his ideas on napkins and the backs of bowling sheets, theorized that teams would use the entire time to shoot, so he figured they would still average 60 shots but play a faster game.
League officials were quickly sold on the idea, first suggested by former Oregon and Yale coach Howard Hobson, and turned the shot clock into a rule. The players adjusted in a heartbeat and scoring increased dramatically, drawing new fans to a league that had been fighting to survive.
And the Nationals thrived, winning the league title in 1955 with Schayes leading the charge.
“One of the things that led to its popularity here is that they had a professional team here for almost 20 years. I think the popularity of basketball here was definitely tied to the Syracuse Nationals,” Schayes, now 81 and still a resident of Syracuse, said Monday. “Syracuse was often referred to as the Green Bay of the NBA — sort of a David versus Goliath syndrome. We were immensely popular because we were on equal footing with all of the big-city franchises, and this area is a blue-collar area. There was a great reservoir of blue-collar workers, and blue-collar people love sports.”
A monument to the 24-second clock was dedicated five years ago in downtown Syracuse, where Jim Boeheim has built a powerhouse in his 34 years as coach of the Orange. Boeheim, a high school player from Lyons, N.Y., about an hour west of Syracuse, starred at the university in the 1960s.
Cornell is Syracuse’s second most-common opponent — they have played 117 times (the Orange have won the last 32). And if each team wins three more games, they would face each other for the national championship in Indianapolis.
A pipe dream? Probably, but the Big Red like to dream.
“If Syracuse and us meet up in the finals, it would be a historic occasion,” Foote said. “We’ll see.”
“It would be like a lacrosse final,” Donahue said. “We need a rematch.”