SYRACUSE, N.Y. >> That empty seat on the Syracuse bench, the one on the team bus, and the one on the airplane rides to road games over the past month won't be empty anymore — coach Jim Boeheim returns to the sidelines on Saturday night after serving a nine-game suspension.
With the Orange winless after three conference games for the first time in nearly two decades, the timing couldn't be better, even if the foe is No. 6 North Carolina. A crowd of more than 26,000 is expected.
"I'm already teary about it," Boeheim's wife, Juli, said. "It's going to be pretty amazing."
Boeheim returned to work at the stroke of midnight on Tuesday, less than two hours after his Orange had lost by one point to Clemson in overtime. He addressed the team at the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center immediately after his suspension was officially over.
"We had to do it right away because you don't want it to wait until the next day and interrupt practice that day," Boeheim said Thursday night on his weekly radio show.
"You want to get said things that need to be said. Obviously, you see things and you try to point out things that happened that aren't good," he said.
"Those games were always going to be tough. We could have played better a little bit, but we might have lost all those games anyway," Boeheim said. "There's no way of telling."
In his 40th season at his alma mater, Boeheim had only missed three games — for surgery in December 2001 to correct an enlarged prostate gland — before the suspension, which was announced in March by the NCAA.
Under interim coach Mike Hopkins. Syracuse (10-6) won four of six nonconference games, the losses coming against former Big East rivals Georgetown and St. John's. In double-digit Atlantic Coast Conference road losses to Pitt and Miami, Syracuse played both tough until the closing minutes, getting outscored 34-9.
"Every game is so important," Boeheim said. "People who aren't involved say it's a few games. They don't understand if you even miss five minutes of a game it crushes you as a player or a coach. It's important to fans, but it's our life's blood."
The last time Boeheim was pacing the Carrier Dome sideline the Orange lost in overtime to Wisconsin on Dec. 2. Syracuse was ranked No. 14 after impressive wins over a pair of top-25 teams — Texas A&M and Connecticut — in capturing the Battle 4 Atlantis title.
The loss to the Badgers was the Orange's first of the season and showed some glaring weaknesses — nine missed free throws, a huge rebounding deficit (51-25), and erratic shooting from beyond the arc (7 of 24).
"Coaches can't get out there and play for us. They can't lace them up like they used to, so it's our job to make shots," freshman Malachi Richardson said. "They can tell us what to do, but we have to go out there and play."
In its three ACC games, Syracuse missed 22 of 58 free throws, a woeful 62 percent and a failure that cost the Orange a victory over Clemson in regulation. Syracuse also has made 25 of 71 from beyond the arc in conference, a 35.2 percent conversion rate, and nearly half of those attempts (34) came against Clemson. In the losses to Pitt and Miami, Syracuse shot 12 of 37 (32.4 percent).
Still, North Carolina coach Roy Williams is wary because of the atmosphere his Tar Heels (14-2, 3-0 ACC) will face.
"I think we'll get a fired-up crowd, I think we'll get a fired-up team," Williams said Friday after practice. "Jimmy's really struggled with this. I talked to him in the summer. I told him, 'You ought to go to Maui, sit around.' He said it'd look bad. I said, 'They're not going to let you talk to the team, talk to the coaches, go to practices. I'd get the heck out of town."'
The immediate task ahead for the Orange seems daunting on paper.
"They're the best team in the country, I think, clearly," Boeheim said. "They have a lot of depth, a lot inside, they shoot the ball, they have seniors. It's just a tremendously talented, veteran team."
Williams says he expects injured big man Kennedy Meeks to play for the first time in four weeks. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Meeks has been out since mid-December with a bone bruise in his left knee. He averaged 12.3 points and 7.4 rebounds in nine games.