NEW YORK — Eric Devendorf wants to play the villain.
Syracuse's junior guard — crude, tattooed and often booed — has that rare mix of talent and cockiness that sets opposing fans off.
"They hate me. They love to hate me. At the end of the day, aw man, it feels good," Devendorf said during Syracuse's run to the final of the Big East tournament last week. "Everybody wants to key on me, talk about me. If they're not talking about you, something's wrong."
Devendorf set the Big East tournament record with 84 points in four games, including 22 in the Orange's amazing six-overtime win against Connecticut. Devendorf looked to have won that game at the buzzer in regulation, but his 3-pointer was waved off, late by a tenth of a second.
The next night, he hit a 55-footer at the halftime buzzer against West Virginia, another overtime win in which he scored 23. The 6-foot-4 player from Bay City, Mich., doesn't hide much on the court — his technical foul, part of a double technical after a hard intentional foul knocked down a teammate, jump-started Syracuse's opening-round win against Seton Hall, sparking him to all of his 19 points in the second half.
He oozes confidence on the court, jawing with opponents, raising his arms, thumping his chest and pointing to the scoreboard and fans. For all that, he said his perception from fans isn't necessarily correct.
"People may take that the wrong way. It's basketball. It's an emotional sport, a competitive sport. Anybody who doesn't get emotional about something they love to do, something's wrong with them," said Devendorf, who averages 15.9 points. "I'm a very emotional player. I take pride in what I do. If it means getting in somebody's face and protecting my teammate, that's what I've got to do.
"Some people may take it the wrong way. … Whatever, man. They don't know how I feel about the sport that I play."
As the No. 13 Orange returns to the NCAA Tournament in Miami after a two-year absence, Devendorf is a big reason, having recovered from a torn ACL that ended his 2007-08 season after 10 games, earning him a medical redshirt.
He nearly missed much of this season as well, from well-publicized off-court problems that also encourage a hostile response from fans. Devendorf was accused of hitting a female student in the face with an open hand in November. The altercation initially resulted in his being suspended for the remainder of the school year, though an appeal had the penalty reduced to 40 hours of community service, amounting to a two-game suspension.
Devendorf believes his emotion is misunderstood as anger — the tattoo on the back of his neck, for instance, is the name of his 9-month-old daughter, Madelyn.
As far as the relationship with opposing fans, Devendorf has been thriving off it, and Syracuse guard Jonny Flynn said Big East crowds should know better than to stoke him with cheers and jeers.
"If you come on the road with us, everywhere we go, people are chanting bad stuff about him, always saying things to him. That's the wrong thing to do," Flynn said. "If I was the opposing crowd, I wouldn't say nothing to him. I'd just be quiet and let him play the game he's playing. That's what makes him great, his emotion, his passion for the game. We really benefit from that."
When the Orange opens tournament play Friday against Stephen F. Austin, fans in Miami will be on Devendorf, and his teammates look forward to that. Flynn said he likes to see Devendorf start talking, knowing big shots are coming next.
"You don't know what he's saying," Flynn said, "but you see his mouth moving and you know Eric is there."