MIAMI (AP)—Eric Devendorf was just a wide-eyed freshman the last time Syracuse played in the NCAA tournament.
A few things have changed since.
There was the blown out knee ligament that kept him off the court for months. The Orange missing the NCAA tournament in back-to-back years. Becoming a father. Getting a few more tattoos. An ugly off-the-court incident surrounding an altercation this season with a woman that could have gotten him kicked out of school.
Oh, and along the way, Devendorf became one of the most reviled opponents in the Big East, the subject of chants in most enemy buildings, even getting an off-color song written in his honor when Syracuse visited Georgetown this season.
“I’ve heard everything, man,” Devendorf said. “I can’t repeat any of it, either.”
Finally, here’s something worth repeating: Devendorf is back in the NCAAs.
The third-seeded Orange (26-9) take on NCAA first-timer and 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin (24-7) on Friday in a South Regional first-round matchup. It’s the 26th trip as a head coach for Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who hasn’t won a tournament game since March 20, 2004—five years to the day from Friday.
“This is what you play for, this opportunity,” Boeheim said. “If you don’t get into this tournament, it’s not good, not a good time. Nothing else matters.”
Devendorf—the only current Syracuse player who was in the game three years ago when the Orange were bounced from the first round by Texas A&M—feels exactly the same way.
“I remember going in there, not knowing what to expect,” said Devendorf, Syracuse’s second-best scorer this season behind Big East tournament MVP Jonny Flynn. “This time around, I know what to expect. I know what type of atmosphere it is. So it’s not a nervous situation. It’s an exciting situation for me.”
Same goes for the Lumberjacks, the Southland Conference champions—they say they’re more excited than nervous, too.
Stephen F. Austin’s calling card is defense: No team in the nation defended the 3-pointer better this season than the Lumberjacks, who held opponents to a paltry 27.2-percent from beyond the arc. And since Syracuse attempted more 3s this season (683) than all but 11 of the teams in the NCAA field, that could be a big factor.
“We’re just going to go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year, and that is play good defense and give a good effort and just play defense, the thing that’s been carrying us all season,” SFA forward Josh Alexander said. “We’ll just go out there and stick to the game plan and play defense. I think we should be fine.”
The Lumberjacks—who have the shortest player in the NCAA field, 5-foot-3 Eric Bell—know they’re facing a tall order, of course.
And for as cool and calm as his players seem, Stephen F. Austin coach Danny Kaspar is relieved that his team already caught a break of sorts: The SFA-Syracuse game is the first in Miami on Friday afternoon, meaning his team won’t sit around all day letting the butterflies multiply.
“Our biggest fear is this being our first time and the nerves. So we’re trying to keep it loose, just say, ‘Hey, just keep doing what we’re doing, play the way we’ve been playing that has netted us 50 wins in two years,”’ Kaspar said. “We know it’s going to come down to, probably if we are to win this game, we know it has to be … us hitting a big shot or us stopping them if they have the last possession.”
There was a time this season where Devendorf feared he had played his last possession.
He was suspended after an off-campus altercation on Nov. 1, accused of hitting a female student on the jaw with the heel of his hand. A reviewing panel originally recommended he be suspended from school for the remainder of the academic year, but Devendorf was ultimately ordered to complete 40 hours of community service before becoming eligible to regain his status as a student and an athlete.
It was a lightning-rod topic in Syracuse for weeks, but Boeheim’s stance that Devendorf deserved a second chance was immediate and adamant.
“When I decide a kid should have a chance to play, I do it based on all the facts in the case,” Boeheim said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with whether this player is going to help us win or not. It’s strictly a matter of what’s the right thing to do.”
Devendorf has averaged 17 points on 46 percent shooting since his suspension in December.
He was at his chest-thumping best in the Big East tournament, scoring 84 points in Syracuse’s four games—including 22 in the epic six-overtime Orange victory over Connecticut in the quarterfinals.
And now, another NCAA chance awaits.
“It’s a big opportunity and I’m going to take advantage of it,” Devendorf said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen a couple months ago, but I was blessed enough to be able to come here and get another opportunity and hopefully I can take advantage of that and make big things happen.”