Author's note: This got long, sorry about that. Also, it's a guaranteed jinx. So if we lose tonight, feel free to blame me.
Maybe it's the weather or maybe our fearless leader has influenced our demeanor, whatever the reason, Syracuse fans aren't content to just be content. Last year at this time, we were 19-0. Discussions on this message board consisted of people clamoring about how 'Cuse wasn't getting the respect it deserved (even though we were the #1 team in the country) at the same time folks were pointing out all our many flaws (Scoopid mistakes, the Triche disappearing act, KJ not Wes Johnson 2.0, Fab Melo was Freshman Fab Melo, etc. etc.). This year, you don't see the latter around here, but there's still plenty of the former.
As many folks have pointed out, there was a narrative coming into this season: there were three "elite" teams (UNC, Kentucky, and Ohio State) who were in a class more or less by themselves, followed by a second tier of a dozen or more very good teams, capable of winning a lot of games, but clearly in a class beneath the elite tier. We were in that second tier. And so Syracuse's undefeated season (along with Baylor's) doesn't fit with the narrative and many pundits were quick to qualify or challenge the validity of our success.
As fans this upset us. But why? Well, for starters, we're not accustomed to having this good of a team, playing such dominating basketball. As Syracuse fans, we're (usually) the first ones to point out the chinks in our own team's armor. We write posts lamenting their inability to score in half-court sets, their stupid turnovers, their mind boggling tendency to start games slowly. But this year, there's none of that, because those problems simply don't exist right now. If you look at this team, you're really grasping at straws to point out its flaws. Maybe because we don't fit the narrative and because they need something to talk about, many pundits have talked about our lack of a proven go to guy. This upsets us, because we, having seen this team play, know that on any given night, Triche, Scoop, KJ, and/or Dion can take over a game. If we're down by two with 30 seconds left, I'm incredibly comfortable putting the ball in Dion's hands, allowing him to penetrate and either get to the hoop and finish or kick the ball out to one of our wings (Joseph!).
Are we a perfect team? Of course not. Our guards are a little inconsistent, but when you have Waiters, Triche, AND Scoop (and MCW as your 4th), you do what Boeheim has done and you ride the hot hand, so their inconsistency isn't really a problem or at least, through 19 games it hasn't been a problem. And yes, we're not as good of a team when Fab Melo gets into foul trouble, and he's been somewhat prone to getting into foul trouble, but it's not exactly like when he goes to the bench, the team is suddenly in dire straights. We have Baye-Moussa-Christmas to come in and that two-headed monster has filled-in adequately.
So in terms of what this team is doing on the court, there's really little to nothing to complain about, save the occasional energy let-down against inferior teams and the sporadic poor performance by one of the 10 guys who average more than 12 minutes a game. But again, we don't fit the narrative. So a number of pundits have pointed out that we have yet to beat anybody who's really good, we haven't really been challenged. They haul out all the old talking points (never leave the state of NY, weak out of conference schedule, no true road games, yada yada) and we get defensive and point to our #3 SOS and tell all these writers and commentators to go straight to Georgetown (which is one of the few places worse than hell). In fairness to these pundits, they're not entirely wrong. Let's look at 6 of the "elite" teams in the country and their respective out of conference schedules. The numbers refer to the opponents' (current) RPI; I've bolded games against RPI Top 25 teams and italicized losses.
Team A (6, 130, 170, 259, 186, 11, 48, 9, 144, 52, 246, 304, 62, 184, 290,205) (3 games vs. RPI Top 25, 2 losses)
Team B (288, 15, 146, 135, 328, 169, 141, 22, 14, 280, 327, 86, 115, 39, 167) (3 games vs. RPI Top 25, 1 loss)
Team C (181, 44, 300, 190, 284, 2, 313, 15, 178, 186, 115, 211) (2 games vs. RPI Top 25, 1 loss)
Team D (90, 272, 6, 47, 182, 26, 15, 7, 20, 95, 254, 128, 126, 24) (5 games vs. RPI Top 25, 2 losses)
Team E (159, 300, 36, 299, 153, 291, 23, 293, 42, 25, 12, 39) (3 games vs. RPI Top 25, 0 losses)
Team F (188, 129, 183, 286, 81, 73, 192, 44, 33, 209, 57, 85, 222) (0 games vs. RPI Top 25, 0 losses)
A quick scan of the these elite teams and you'd probably rank them (in terms of most difficult schedule to least difficult schedule) as D - A - B - E - C - F. Why? Because an "elite" team should take care of business against lesser (yet solid) opponents and shouldn't be tripped by anyone except a good team. As EZ has pointed out in the past, if you play 2 top ten teams and then nothing but cupcakes, you're more likely to lose a game than if you play a dozen decent mid-majors, but playing the 12 mid-majors will certainly give you a higher SOS.
In reality, the average SOS goes D (Opponents' average RPI 92.29) - F (Opponents' average RPI 137.07) - E (Opponents' average RPI 139.33) - A (Opponents' average RPI 144.13) - B (Opponents' average RPI 151.47) - C (Opponents' average RPI 168.25).
And then when you factor in the wins and losses, and you grant that if you play enough good teams, you're bound to lose one, the most impressive resume seems to be something like E then B then C... F - D - A.
And who are these teams? A = UNC. B = Kentucky. C = Ohio State. D = Duke. E = Baylor. And F = Syracuse.
So what do these (very misleading) stats tell us? Well, Baylor seems to have a legitimate claim to be the #1 team in the country, Duke had a better non-conference season than UNC, Kentucky is about as good as their #2 ranking seems to indicate, and Syracuse ascended to the top of the rankings, largely because they haven't played anyone while other teams actually challenged themselves. Oh and to quote Homer Simpson,
"People can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that."
This is what makes us angry. And not having anything pertaining to the team's play to complain about, we focus our frustration on the pundits who use these misleading statistics to tell us what we know in our hearts and minds to be false - that we're overrated. That we're not legit. And so we use equally misleading statistics to prove that these pundits are wrong and in lieu of that, we tell them to go straight to Georgetown (sorry, sorry Doug Gottlieb, I've been drinking at the Dome and at MSG and I couldn't help my language - I'm truly vile and disgusting).
The reason we're angry is because we've seen this team play 19 games. We've seen them overcome adversity, withstand angry crowds on the road, cope with excellent shooting and playing by their opponents. And we've seen them dominate. And they're not just dominating the Colgate's of the world, they're dominating everybody. They're making it look easy. I mean Mookie Jones played 8 minutes in our last game. Mookie Jones. Played 8 minutes. In a Big East game. So no, we haven't been tested by an elite team or even a top tier team, but that doesn't mean we can't recognize how talented the Orange are.
Are we better than Baylor, Kentucky, Duke, UNC, and Ohio State? Maybe. I don't know. Hopefully we'll find out come March/April. That's what tournaments (and not polls and statistics) are for. I can make a compelling case about why we'd beat each team in a neutral court game:
Syracuse vs. Kentucky - Kentucky's DDM offense is predicated on penetration stemming from isolation and pick and rolls. Our zone mitigates their strength, as evidenced by how a mediocre Auburn team hung with and almost beat Kentucky by zoning them. And yes, our zone is a helluva better than Auburn's. They're pretty good on defense, but Teague is a mediocre point guard, who I fully expect to turn the ball over a lot against us, contributing to plenty of easy transition hoops, so even if we're only okay in our half court sets, we're still going to be just fine.
Syracuse vs. Ohio State - They have a great big man in Sullinger, a great PG and perhaps one of the few guys in the country who can keep Dion in check in Craft, and a shooter in Buford. But I think we get out on Buford and I don't think that Sullinger is a good enough passer and shooter to exploit the weak spot in the middle of the zone - he'll get his second chance putbacks, but even if he scores 25, they only go like 6 deep and I think we wear them out.
Syracuse vs. Duke - They're a mess at PG. And while they have lots of guys capable of knocking down the 3, none of them do it consistently. I think we frustrate Rivers with our zone and they turn it over constantly. Their bigs can hurt us on second chance opportunities and they're all pretty skilled, but if you're going to beat our zone, you need a floor general and they don't have one. I'll take my chances with them.
Syracuse vs. Baylor - Honestly, I haven't seen enough of Baylor to know exactly how we'd match up with them, but since that doesn't stop pollsters, why should I let it stop me? I think Baylor is very good. They're deep and athletic and they have a bunch of guys who can shoot from distance and finish around the rim. But they like to play at a breakneck pace and their PG doesn't take great care of the ball, plus they've never played a zone like ours. They scare me, but our zone scares everyone. And for good reason.
Syracuse vs. UNC - UNC has a great point guard, who isn't going to turn the ball over much and Barnes and Bullock are both fully capable of knocking down outside shots, plus they have an impressive inside duo of Henson and Zeller. Can they beat us? Absolutely? Of the other elite teams, I think I'm most afraid of them. But I'm most afraid of a team that just lost to Florida State by 33. So there's that...
I guess my point is that if you watch this team play, you know how good they are. And if you don't watch them (and just read box scores or catch SC highlights), it's easy to look at stats and say they're not as good as their record suggests. I mean, last year we were 19-0 and lost in the second round of the tournament. But this year's team isn't last year's team, and if can't see that and make uninformed, ignorant comments about us, we're gonna complain, cuz that's about all we have to complain about right now. But Cuse fans, I know there's no way to get rid of the neuroses, but maybe we can have thicker skins when it comes to the pundits. As Sean has said, no need to get mad, just #AddHimToTheList.