If you don’t have March Madness fever yet, we think it’s about time you catch up with the rest of us. Now that the First Four games, unofficially known as the play-ins, are in the books the 2016 NCAA tournament has finally started to feel real. Granted, there are still those who don’t consider the start of the tournament to be official until the first-round contests get underway. However, we think that would a mistake. You never know when a tournament superstar will be born.
It’s always special when an individual player takes center stage at the big dance and puts the rest of the country on notice. We saw it when Stephen Curry put on a show with Davidson during the 2008 tournament, and perhaps we’ll get to see someone else do it again this time around. However, as unforgettable as the Chef’s performance was during that magical Cinderella run, it didn’t end with the underdog cutting down the nets.
The same, however, cannot be said for the 2003 NCAA tournament when the No. 3-seeded Syracuse Orange stormed to the title on the back of one of the greatest freshmen who college basketball has ever seen: Carmelo Anthony. Unbelievable performances happen all the time during March Madness. For Anthony, these are the three that stand above the rest.
3. 2003 East Regional Finals: Anthony vs. Oklahoma
Coming into their Elite Eight showdown with the Syracuse Orange, the Oklahoma Sooners — the No. 1 seed in the East Region — were expected to have an advantage because of their considerable experience. Yet, as we’ve seen on previous occasions, experience is no match for undeniable talent. And despite having the Big 12 Player of the Year in Hollis Price, the Sooners had no answer for the most talented player on the floor: Syracuse’s Anthony.
In a performance that would help earn him the region’s Most Outstanding Player, the Second-Team All-American hit nine of 16 shots, including one of four from beyond the three-point line, on his way to a 20-point, 10-rebound night. Behind Anthony’s dominance, the Orange would topple the Sooners 63-47 and advance to the program’s first Final Four since 1996. While this was certainly a big night for both Syracuse and Anthony, as you’ll soon learn, the best was yet to come.
2. 2003 National Championship: Anthony vs. Kansas
After dismantling Dwyane Wade and the Marquette Golden Eagles 94-61 in national semifinals, the Kansas Jayhawks — the No. 2 seed in the West Region — must have liked their chances of helping coach Roy Williams capture his first national championship. And who could blame them? Unfortunately for the Rock Chalk, Syracuse, and it’s unstoppable freshman phenom, had other plans.
Melo went out on the game’s biggest stage and proved that being under the bright lights only makes him stronger. He shot seven for 16 from the field, knocked down three of five from beyond the arc, and finished the night with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists.
Behind Anthony’s heroics, the Orange would topple the Jayhawks by a score of 81-78, giving the program — and head coach Jim Boeheim — its first taste of victory in a title game. For Anthony, a player who practically set the bar for one-and-dones, this was the perfect end to a short, but sweet, college career.
1. 2003 National Semifinals: Anthony vs. Texas
The Syracuse Orange made it to the Final Four by toppling a No. 1 seed. If they were to make it to the title game, they would have to do it again; this time, against the Texas Longhorns and All-American point guard T.J. Ford. If anyone believed that the young Orange, particularly their superstar freshman with the iconic cornrows, would buckle under the pressure, they had another thing coming.
Anthony was born for this moment. In front of the electric crowd at The Superdome, Melo proceeded to dismantle the Longhorns in epic fashion. He shot 63.2% from the field (12 for 19), hit three of four attempts from beyond the arc, and silenced the Texas faithful with a ridiculous stat line of 33 points, 14 rebounds, one assist, and three steals.
In the end, Syracuse would come away victorious by a score of 95-84. Of course, while basketball is the ultimate team sport, Anthony proved that in the NCAA tournament, when the best player in the country manages to rise to the occasion, one individual can lead his team to the promised land.
Statistics courtesy of S/R College Basketball.