ATLANTA — James Southerland spent most of his first season at Syracuse on the bench and part of his last one on the couch.
His reward for all that frustration: A trip to the Final Four and, if things break right, maybe a career playing pro basketball when this adventure is over.
Left idling on the sideline as a freshman, then suspended for six games as a senior for an academic issue, Southerland is making the most out of his final weeks on Jim Boeheim’s team.
Heading into Saturday’s semifinal against Michigan, Southerland may be Syracuse’s most dangerous player on offense — the side of the court that’s been receiving much less attention during his team’s run to Atlanta. He’s made 50 3-pointers in the 17 games since his comeback from suspension, when he was forced to watch road games from the couch in his apartment.
“I always thought that I was coming back,” Southerland said. “You always prepare for what’s going to happen and you prepare for the alternative, like, if you’re not coming back, what would you do?”
Thankfully for the Orange (30-9), that didn’t turn out to be an issue.
Southerland’s high school coach, Ron Naclerio, said the suspension had to do with the NCAA’s interpretation of the amount of help Southerland received from a tutor for a paper he wrote. Boeheim called the suspension of his senior forward, who carries a 3.3 grade-point average and is six classes shy of getting his degree, “a very complex issue and certainly I don’t have the answers.”
Eventually, the suspension was overturned, however, and Southerland began finding his place in the Syracuse rotation. The player who tied Gerry McNamara’s program record with nine 3-pointers against Arkansas before the suspension found his range again in a 6-for-6 effort in a 62-59 win over Pitt in the Big East tournament.
“He’s not like most kids from New York,” Naclerio said of his former star from Cardozo High School in Queens. “He doesn’t have that bravado, that, I’m going to kick your (butt), bust you up. He just wants a little chance to show you what he can do and that’s what his career has been. He’s treaded water like a tadpole. People always asked him, `Why are you staying at Syracuse?’ He chose to stick it out and he’s finishing with flying colors.”
Southerland, the kid known as “Big Baby” coming out of high school who is now getting props as “Big Shot James,” opened his college career with a performance that foreshadowed great things to come.
In his debut in a Syracuse uniform, an exhibition game against Cal State-Los Angeles, Southerland shot 7 for 7 from the floor, including 5 for 5 from 3, for 19 points — all in 14 minutes. A heady performance for the newcomer. But Syracuse dropped its next exhibition — the infamous loss to Division II LeMoyne that pushed Boeheim to go, full-time, to the 2-3 zone — and Southerland was an afterthought once the real season started. He scored a grand total of 41 points over 13 games his entire freshman season.
“People started talking in his ear, saying, `If you’re not going to play, there’d be plenty of teams that would be more than happy to have you,”’ Naclerio said.
They may have been.
But Southerland stuck it out with Boeheim.
“We recruit fairly highly (regarded) players, although James was not a top-250 player,” Boeheim said. “Still, when you don’t get in and play as a freshman, you’re thinking about, `Where am I going?’ James has got a lot of pride. He didn’t want to step back to a smaller school and he made the right decision. But the first couple years are not as rewarding as you would like.”
Southerland has dreams of playing pro ball. His performances over the past few months have landed him in a number NBA mock-draft boards. Soon, he’ll find out if he can make a living playing basketball. Regardless, he has already made a difference at Syracuse, where the Orange avoided a repeat of his freshman and junior seasons, when the expectations and the seedings — No. 1 then vs. No. 4 now — were much higher but the team fell short of the Final Four.
“He’s shown everyone in the nation what he can do,” Naclerio said. “But he really hasn’t had that `A-plus’ NCAA game yet. He’s had `A-plus’ moments. A lot of Syracuse people are hoping against Michigan he can be `Big Shot James’ again.”