Wallace's flowering has Syracuse in sun With an extra year, he's carved a niche

March 29, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

John Wallace knew all along he had made the right decision to come back for his senior year at Syracuse. But it wasn't until last weekend's NCAA West Regional in Denver that Wallace could firmly say, "And this is why I came back."

"This" was a 20-foot, off-the-dribble three-pointer that helped the Orangemen escape with an 83-81 overtime victory over Georgia in the regional semifinals at McNichols Arena on Friday night. The shot capped a 30-point, 15-rebound performance that included Wallace scoring his team's last 10 points.

"This" was a 60-57 victory Sunday over second-seeded Kansas that put fourth-seeded Syracuse (28-8) into its first Final Four in nine years. The Orangemen will play Mississippi State (26-7) in the first semifinal game tomorrow at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.

It was all sweet redemption for Wallace, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward who spent most of his college career fighting comparisons to Derrick Coleman, the former Syracuse star turned NBA problem child, and playing in the shadows of other Big East stars.

Wallace now has carved his own legacy, and others in the future will be compared to him.

"It feels so good, not only for me, but for my team and for our coach, who has taken a lot of flak," said Wallace, who, like Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, has taken his share of hits over his career. "For everyone that was down on us, it feels really good."

A four-year starter, Wallace came to Syracuse as the Orangemen were feeling the effects of a tumultuous NCAA investigation. Though the program was given the proverbial slap on the wrist, other top recruits went elsewhere. But Wallace's mother wanted to be able to keep a close watch on her son from the family's home in nearby Rochester.

It was the relationship with his mother, as well as with his now 2-year-old son, that helped Wallace change direction last June. After declaring himself eligible two days before the draft, Wallace told his mother he was staying put. Vanessa Wallace reportedly cried.

"My mother made sacrifices so I could get this net," Wallace said in the team's cramped dressing room after the Kansas game, the net draped around his hat. "Right now, all I give her is as much love as I possibly can."

Vanessa Wallace, who worked a number of jobs while her son was in high school, has competition for those affections these days from her toddler grandson, John III. The story making the rounds during the season was about how Wallace got out of a preseason practice early one night so he could take his son trick-or-treating on Halloween.

"I want to be there for my family," said Wallace, whose own father, John Sr., left the family for California when his son was 12. "Whatever I have to do, whatever sacrifices I have to make, I'm going to be a father to my son. I'm going to give him something I never had growing up."

It is the off-court maturity Wallace gained that has helped him develop on the court, as well. He saw how poorly he and some of his teammates shot free throws -- an Achilles' heel for Syracuse for some time -- and practiced diligently last summer. He took his nearly exclusive inside game outside.

Though his field-goal percentage suffered, dropping from a career-high 59 percent last year to 49 this year, his overall game improved. He wound up raising his scoring more than six points a game, and he became arguably the most versatile big man ever to play at Syracuse.

"There are things that Derrick could do better than John, and there are things Billy [Owens] could do better than John, but they can't do as many things as John," said longtime Syracuse assistant Wayne Morgan.

There was, in retrospect, really no choice to make last year. After putting up respectable numbers for Syracuse for much of his first three years, Wallace probably would have been a late first-round NBA draft choice last June.

In perhaps the richest draft since 1986, Wallace was considered a player whose one marketable skill -- his ability to post up -- paled in comparison to Maryland's Joe Smith or even North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace.

There was a time when Wallace wasn't even considered the best big man in the Big East. As a freshman, he got lost in the publicity surrounding Georgetown's Othella Harrington. As a sophomore, it was Connecticut's Donyell Marshall.

The past two years, it was the league's guards -- Connecticut's Ray Allen, Villanova's Kerry Kittles and Georgetown's Allen Iverson -- who have received most of the attention.

"John's just been consistent," said Syracuse point guard Lazarus Sims, Wallace's best friend and former high school teammate. "He's not flashy. I'm glad he stayed around. I think it was good for him and for us."

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