Big East

These are the last Syracuse players with ties to the Big East

Courtesy of Syracuse Athletics

The last link between Syracuse and the Big East on the playing field will dissolve after this year.

Syracuse’s last link to the Big East on the playing field will break at the end of this year.

Four years after bolting from the kingmaking conference it helped build for coastal hardwood powerhouses, every player in Orange who competed in the Big East will exhaust his or her eligibility this season.

It’s the final bow from an Orange exit that broke apart the Catholic 7, saddened some fans, dulled traditional rivalries and spawned a documentary on the network the conference grew with and interdepended upon. Ezra Edelman, who won a 2017 Oscar for an OJ Simpson-related project, directed ESPN’s “Requiem for the Big East.”

SU got the money it left for. Conference revenue nearly doubled in 2013-14, its first in the Atlantic Coast Conference, per USA Today, from $11.9 million to $19.2 million. SU athletics used that extra cash to pay off its $7.5 million Big East exit fee.

Syracuse head basketball coach Jim Boeheim didn’t see the move as a departure from the brash and brawling Big East. From personalities on the sideline and court. From Patrick Ewing and Madison Square Garden and Dwayne “Pearl” Washington’s heroics.

“It isn’t the Big East,” Boeheim said in the documentary. “We’re not leaving that, we’re leaving a whole different animal. I’m disappointed and nostalgic for what we had. But that is gone. That is long gone.”

The seven remaining athletes are Dajuan Coleman (men’s basketball), Brittney Sykes (women’s basketball) and Paolo Ciferri, Joe Gillis, Evan Molloy, Sergio Salcido and Cal Paduda (men’s lacrosse).

Here are memories from Syracuse’s last athletes to ever play in the Big East:

Brittney Sykes, women’s basketball guard

Regina Sykes had been at every single Big East road game. Travel distances for the New Jersey family had factored heavily into her daughter Brittney’s decision on where to play basketball. Regina loved the conference because it meant drivable trips to New York City, Washington D.C., Philly, Pittsburgh, Boston, Providence, Storrs and West Orange.

“I miss that home aspect of it,” Brittney Sykes said. “I love the ACC, but the Big East setup was perfect.”

Sykes appeared comfortable in the Big East, posting 11 points in her first game, a double-double in her first month and 19 points in her first conference game. Against St. John’s in January, she stole the ball and splashed a half-court heave to beat the Red Storm, 60-57, at the buzzer. Her 8.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game earned her a spot on the Big East All-Freshman team.

The Big East’s physicality still separates the conferences, Sykes said. She enjoyed facing such tough teams, citing her two favorite freshman games as an 11-point loss to No. 2 Notre Dame and a 13-point conference-tournament-ending loss to Connecticut. But those games showed progress, that Syracuse could hang with anybody.

“Playing every Big East team was a dog fight,” Sykes said. “In the ACC it kind of is too, but unless you played in the Big East, you won’t know the difference.”

Cal Paduda, men’s lacrosse FOGO

The game’s magnitude, the sleek gray jerseys, the friends in the stands and the blowout win transcended the usual level of cool. An American legend had given the team a halftime speech.

Friends had showed out for Paduda, a Connecticut native, when Syracuse beat Notre Dame 10-4 in MetLife Stadium at the Big City Classic on April 27, 2013. A Big East squad so deeply steeped in New York City basketball lore had now returned to the city for a spring sport sendoff.

The year of lasts had been full of firsts for Paduda. The freshman had won his first-ever attempted faceoff against Providence and set a single-game freshman record (20) against Hobart. He didn’t take the X against the Fighting Irish but the gravity still hits him. Yes, Syracuse plays UND now in the ACC and yes, the ACC has better competition, but it just seemed somehow different then. Paduda talked to longstick midfielder Pete Macartney about his “baaaad-man” hit on that poor UND middie in that game just a few weeks ago.

Still, nothing compared to Syracuse football and lacrosse legend Jim Brown coming into the locker room to deliver the halftime speech. He told the men in orange to be physical and grind ‘em out and want every ball more and it didn’t matter they were clichés because, well, Jim Brown.

“I will never forget that,” Paduda said. “There are so many awesome parts about playing lacrosse here. It’s a special school with a special tradition and that’s just something…

“How many people can say that Jim Brown once gave them a halftime speech?”

Sergio Salcido, men’s lacrosse midfielder

Even though Salcido arrived in central New York from Winter Park, Florida, he understood the Big East’s importance to Syracuse’s lore and the program’s ascension to national power. He had chosen Syracuse in part because of how much he could learn there.

Teammates preferred teaching the freshman, listed then at 5-foot-7 and 144 pounds, the Big East’s style of lacrosse by showing him in practice. “It was a bruiser league,” Salcido said, grinning.

Four years and twenty-two packed-on pounds later, Salcido is one of Syracuse’s most important weapons. “He came out of nowhere to have a great season last year,” ESPN lacrosse analyst Mark Dixon said. “That was a project years in development.”

Paolo Ciferri, men’s lacrosse defenseman

Doling out hard checks to someone in a Georgetown jersey wasn’t the weird part. It was that just a few months ago, Ciferri had been teammates with the Hoya midfielder.

Best friends Joe Bucci and Ciferri had played together for Ithaca (New York) High School for four years before this battle. The two friends had talked about playing in the Big East, where you could play ‘Nova and St. Johns and Providence and one another’s storied programs.

“I got to play 1-on-1 on him in a game,” Ciferri said. “That was a unique experience. Being on the other side of the ball was fun.”

Bucci got a goal and Ciferri got the win.

“The Big East in general is a great conference,” Ciferri said. “But you can’t really look back too much.”

Evan Molloy, men’s lacrosse goalie

Competitive nature and postseason advantages justify any Big East losses in sentimentality, Molloy said, because the ACC is the country’s best lacrosse straight up. Molloy spent spring 2013 on the sidelines in a redshirt year, but the Manhasset, New York native fully appreciated the league’s legacy. His grandfather became an All-American attackman for Syracuse, coaxed Jim Brown to campus and raised Molloy’s program saves record-setting father.

Still, competition trumped all. By joining the ACC, Syracuse gave itself a larger margin for error in becoming a part of the most successful lacrosse conference in the country. RPI, which measures tournament resume strength and accounts for strength of schedule, suddenly bumped into SU’s favor because it now means playing teams like Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame and North Carolina every year.

The Big East has a few tough teams, Molloy acknowledges, like Denver and Villanova.

“But then there’s a serious drop off,” Molloy said. “In the ACC, you’re reloading every week to play an unbelievable team that’s just as talented as you. It saves your season to a point.”

In 2016, Syracuse lost three of four games mid-season and analysts talked about the Orange missing the NCAA tournament. But then SU crushed No. 10 North Carolina in the Carrier Dome, beat the Tar Heels again in the ACC tournament and piled on with the fact that UNC had thumped No. 2 Notre Dame in between. Those quality opportunities rescued SU’s season, ones that might not have been present in another conference.

“I have great memories of basketball and stuff,” Molloy said, “but from a lacrosse standpoint the ACC is an unreal move for Syracuse.”

Joe Gillis, men’s lacrosse defenseman

Looking into the future seemed tempting as the Orange streamed onto the field in Philadelphia to celebrate its 13-9 victory. Gillis had grown a lot that year. The freshman debuted collegiately at short-stick defensive midfielder on Feb. 24 against Army. He only played that one game and didn’t record a statistic, but he traveled with the team and has an inside look at Syracuse’s last sport to play in the Big East.

Gillis looked around at his teammates who had just played in their last Big East game ever. Matt Pratt, Joe Fazio, Brian Megill, Steve Ianzito, David Hamlin, Ryan Barber, Luke Cometti, Kyle Carey. JoJo Marasco had five points in a season when he finally made good on the promise of No. 22.

“I was there holding up the trophy with all the boys,” Gillis said. “You worked hard with them and you went out with them.”

The next year, Gillis would notice bigger, stronger, faster athletes in the new conference. He’d notice the necessity of speed, better teams, bigger crowds and higher stakes. But he didn’t think about any of that in that moment as he looked around Villanova Stadium.

He knew in that moment what the entire team knew, what everyone watching knew too. Those players held in their hands the last Big East trophy Syracuse would ever win.

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Daily Orange File Photo

Dajuan Coleman, men’s basketball center

A player often mistaken for the son of Syracuse legend Derrick Coleman took a short ride over from Jamesville-DeWitt (New York) High School as one of SU’s highest rated recruits ever. The McDonald’s All-American started in the season-opener as a freshman but then the knee problems first appeared that eventually derailed his career. He hobbled through the season and played 52 total minutes in conference play, scoring 11 points and pulling down six rebounds.

Four years and a season-and-a-half missed due to injury later, Coleman has perspective.

“The ACC was a little deeper, more better teams,” Coleman said. “But the Big East was a lot more physical.”

The haymaker conference had one more punch to throw at the Orange.

Coleman played four minutes in Syracuse’s regular-season-closing loss at Georgetown and not at all in the final Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden. But he was there. He watched the steamrolling of Seton Hall, slipping by Pittsburgh and declaring Georgetown’s conference tournament chances official over in overtime. He also sat on the bench as relative newcomer Louisville eliminated the Old Big East bastion from the conference it helped create.

“The atmosphere, the rivalries,” Coleman said. “It was real fun playing in the Big East.”

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