MIAMI – The college basketball villain is white. He's always white. And he usually plays at Duke or North Carolina, though Florida has cranked up its production in recent seasons. He also has one or more of the following attributes: well-coiffed hair, a propensity to smack the floor on big defensive possessions and a signature way-too-intense facial expression. He is, in reality, a harmless creature.
Which makes Eric Devendorf, the most hated player in college basketball, such an anomalous villain. He actually fits the description in a broader sense, not the college basketball archetype. He allegedly hit a girl in the face but remained a member of the Syracuse basketball team at the behest of coach Jim Boeheim. He is tattooed up and down. He wears a Federline beard. He is at times selfish on the court and perpetually obnoxious, self-congratulatory tugs at his jersey following celebratory leaps on tables after reams of fetid trash talk. He is a punk in every sense – or at least that's the persona he has cultivated the past four years and likes to reinforce a few times daily.
And, yeah, Devendorf is white.
He also is a showman, full of histrionics and with a reputation to uphold. Odd, then, was the sight at American Airlines Arena on Friday during third-seeded Syracuse's easy 59-44 victory against 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin in a South Region first-round game: Devendorf, instigator extraordinaire, found himself with a sudden case of lockjaw.
"It was a little disappointing," said Eric Bell, the Lumberjacks' 5-foot-3 guard who figured to hear the 6-4 Devendorf deliver at least three midget cracks and a couple dwarf blasts. "It was a calmer Devendorf. He was talking more to his teammates than us. It was totally different than what I expected."
Like, restrained. Or even polite. Nothing about moms, sisters or girlfriends, and certainly nothing about game because Devendorf's was lacking. He was 3 of 11 from the floor, committed six turnovers and looked nothing like the scoring machine that helped lead the Orange to the Big East tournament final last week.
While Syracuse survived to move on and face sixth-seeded Arizona State in Sunday's second round, it knows that for anything more than an early exit, it needs a command performance from Devendorf, a junior from Bay City, Mich. Jonny Flynn will do his score-and-dish thing, Arinze Onuaku his bang-and-rebound duet and Paul Harris his fill-the-stat-sheet goodness. The wild card for Syracuse is Devendorf. When he's on, the Orange is a serious Final Four threat. If silent, his team will be, too.
There's a perfectly plausible explanation to the disappearing act: Stephen F. Austin was brutal, and Devendorf is the sort who plays to his opponent – down, in this case. Compound that with playing in front of a half-filled arena after spending a week at Mecca, Madison Square Garden during the Big East tournament, and no wonder Devendorf did his best imitation of a gentleman.
"The bigger stage, the more amped up I am to get it going," Devendorf said. "We'll see on Sunday."
For now, Devendorf ran through the typical list of excuses, from the team's woeful 3-point shooting ("It was one of those games") to his own foibles ("Everybody's going to turn the ball over sometimes") to Syracuse's fallibility ("We'd better step it up"). He didn't cast blame. He's not the type.
That's why Devendorf, for all his petulance, is an admirable basketball player: He grabs games and bends them to his will. Quite often for the worse, but still. When Devendorf turns the ball over, it is almost a given that the next time down the court he'll try to create, even if he ends up taking an off-balance runner in the lane with 15 fingers in his face. Such is life with Devo.
He missed three 3-pointers in the first few minutes of the second half, and all of the defensive intensity of the first half – Devendorf, as much as any of his teammates, encouraged everyone to wave their hands – went kaput. Until he buried his first 3. Devendorf returned to the defensive end, broke into a deep crouch, pressured the ball, flashed in passing lanes, played like the Big East tournament Devendorf.
A few more missed shots and it lapsed. The only thing that roused Stephen F. Austin's band was Bell's steal off Devendorf. Even the tuba player was looking forward to razzing Devendorf. He just didn't give away much material.
"If they don't hate you, man, something's wrong," Devendorf said. "That's their problem. I'm out here playing basketball, man, doing what I love to do."
And what we love to watch. Admit it: Audiences seek out Syracuse because of the school's reputation, and they leave the remote untouched because Devendorf is such a compelling character. Syracuse fans absolutely love him. And they know, too, that if Devendorf were wearing a UConn uniform, he would be regarded as an abhorrent thug.
"No one cares here," Syracuse forward Rick Jackson said. "People see things like trash talk. At the end of the day, though, you're doing this for no one but you and your family."
For proof, look at the back of Devendorf's neck. Tattooed on it is the name and birth date of his daughter, Madelyn, who turned 9 months old Friday. Devendorf is, by all accounts, a good father, and he's on track to graduate in four years, and he's a respected teammate, the only Orange player who had been to the NCAA tournament before Friday. They say he's not a villain, only that he's misunderstood – which is pretty much the oldest and lamest excuse possible for someone of questionable character.
"At the end of the day," Devendorf said, "you can't do anything about it."
So he doesn't. Devendorf plays the only way he knows how, and if it happens to make him a few enemies along the way, such is the price of doing business.
No matter what it costs.
- Eric Devendorf
- college basketball