After Syracuse University basketball games in the early 2010s, I occasionally would steal a glance at the lanky lads leaning against a wall, off to the side, as they watched their famous father answer reporters’ questions in the bowels of the Carrier Dome. That they would follow in Jim Boeheim’s footsteps and play college basketball was not surprising, given they had learned how to shoot and dribble not long after learning how to walk, and had tagged along with their dad to so many practices and games that the Dome and the Carmelo Anthony Basketball Center became second homes.
The oldest son, Jimmy, wound up at Cornell, where he’s an accomplished senior who unfortunately didn’t play a game this season because the Ivy Leagues shut down winter sports in response to the pandemic. The younger boy, Buddy, is an SU junior who’s exceeding the enormous expectations that come from playing in your hometown for a father who created this college hoops juggernaut and casts a shadow larger than the Dome.
Buddy endured some tough times to reach this lofty perch. Earlier this season, he was mired in a shooting slump, the team was struggling to stay above .500, and the internet vitriol among spoiled Orange fans started surging. There were personal attacks, accusations of favoritism, and calls for Buddy’s benching.
Wonder what those trolls think now?
Buddy persevered by doing what he’s always done — he worked his keister off. And at the urging of Orange-shooting-star-turned-assistant-coach Gerry McNamara, he kept firing away. Eventually, the shots started falling, and the team got on a roll. And, now, something maddeningly special is unfolding in Orange Nation. Eleventh-seed Syracuse, which just a month ago looked like it wouldn’t be doing any dancing at this NCAA tournament, has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, with a Saturday night matchup against Houston looming.
This is the 20th time an Orange squad has advanced this far under the 76-year-old Boeheim. And this particular journey just might be his sweetest because it’s been made possible by his boy — the 6-foot-6 guard known as Buddy Buckets.
The kid some wanted benched has combined for 55 points on 13-of-23 shooting from beyond the three-point arc in NCAA victories against favored San Diego State and West Virginia. Tack on Buddy’s superlatives in three ACC tournament games, and he’s averaging 27.8 points and six 3s per game.
At a time of year where the sun rarely shines in Syracuse, this son is shining brilliantly.
Ranked as just the 77th-best shooting guard coming out of high school by a respected recruiting service, Buddy currently is the hottest shooter in the country. And people have been taking notice, especially after his 30-point performance in the tournament opener and his 25-point effort against the Mountaineers. The only person trending more widely on social media than Buddy during this tournament is Sister Jean, the 5-foot, 101-year-old nun whose prayers for giant-slaying Loyola Chicago continue to be answered. Buddy may not have Sister Jean’s divine connections, but, as his proud papa pointed out, he does have a sweet stroke and a work ethic second to none.
“I give him all the credit in the world,’’ said the elder Boeheim, who marvels at all those early morning and post-game shooting sessions his son puts in. “I’ve had a lot of hard-working players, I really have. I mean, a lot of guys that just worked their tail off. Buddy works harder than anybody I’ve ever coached, and it’s not close. It really is not close. He’s just an incredible hard worker, and he deserves this.”
Buddy’s diligence and basketball intelligence have enabled him to become much more than just a shooter. He has honed his dribbling skills to the point where he’s learned how to create shots for himself and use his height advantage against smaller guards. He’s also worked on improving his footwork, which has made him a much better defender at the top of SU’s vaunted 2-3 zone.
Both father and son had hoped things would turn out this way, but there was no guarantee Buddy would ever get the opportunity to play for Syracuse. After being named Central New York High School Player of the Year during his junior season at Jamesville-DeWitt, Buddy decided to challenge himself against better competition, and transferred to Brewster Academy, a prep school in Wolfeboro, N.H., with a reputation for sending players to Power-Five conference colleges.
Despite a solid season there, recruitment of Buddy remained tepid. Interestingly, Gonzaga, the favorite to win it all this year, and Iona, now coached by Boeheim’s first assistant, Rick Pitino, were among the handful of colleges offering him basketball scholarships. The Zags remain unbeaten, but, as Buddy has proved in recent weeks, he’d be a welcome addition to the top-ranked team’s starting lineup. And if Iona had Buddy in the lineup, the Gaels probably would have upset second-seed Alabama in the second round.
Instead, Buddy wound up where he always wanted to be. And, as we’ve seen, the scholarship he received from SU clearly was based on talent, not nepotism. He earned it. He deserves it.
Fathers coaching sons, especially at this level, can be complicated. But this relationship of flesh and blood and basketball could not have gone any better. And the journey’s far from over. Following a COVID-altered season, this March has been wackier than ever, with Syracuse one of four double-digit seeds to reach the round of 16. The Orange men are 6.5-point underdogs vs. Houston, but they were underdogs in their two previous games, and look what happened.
Syracuse has a coach that has sent 1,083 opponents home with losses in his 45 years at the helm. It also has Jackson Thomas Boeheim, aka Buddy Buckets, at shooting guard. That combo of Hall of Fame coach and en fuego marksman was unbeatable in the first two rounds. Who’s to say that trend won’t continue?
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.