You know the Orange are having a good season when discussions about whether dog-fighting is ethical if (and only if) it's between Jack the Bulldog and Jonathan the Huskey, are replaced by heated debates about whether anything short of making a Final Four (or winning a National Championship) constitutes failure. This is what you call a high-class problem and it's arisen because unlike most seasons where I think syracuse has the potential to beat any team on any given night, this season I've gone into every game (except perhaps our last one at Louisville) with the mindset not that we have the potential to win, but that we should win. Is this team perfect? Obviously not. You've heard the national media's talking points about us (no, they don't hate us; yes, some enjoy getting a rise out of us; yes, they point out flaws in every other team, except perhaps Kentucky... who's their go-to-guy?). And while I think our rebounding struggles are an overblown and readily addressable issue, this team still struggles to consistently knock down perimeter shots, is much better when the opposing team plays an up-tempo game, and has some real depth issues if Fab gets into foul trouble. All that being said, anyone who has watched this team knows that they could absolutely make a Final Four and then win the National Championship. So the question has become, what if they don't?
Many have said, anything less than a Final Four is a failure. Those people I'm sure know it's a single-game elimination tournament, crazy stuff happens, cocaine-fueled teams shoot 78.6% from the field and the best team doesn't always win, but their thinking is something like, "If you're the better team and you don't win, you've failed." And perhaps there's some truth to that sentiment, but it seems like an oversimplification to me. I've watched a lot of college basketball this season in addition to my regular dosage of the Orange. Obviously anyone who has seen Kentucky play knows they're a really, really excellent basketball team. Their one major weakness, a freshman PG who took too many shots and turned the ball over too often, has mostly ceased to be a weakness of late. And I think their presence in this tournament is why most 'Cuse fans are saying, "Final Four or bust," instead of "National Championship or bust." But as things stand now, we wouldn't meet the Wildcats until the Final Four or National Championship game. So what happens if we lose before then?
If we lose on the first weekend, it's a failure and I think an explanation of why is unnecessary.
If we lose in the Sweet 16, it's a probably a failure. Other than having to play Louisville, there's not a (likely) 4 or 5 seed that we shouldn't beat. Am I 100% confident in this sentiment? Absolutely not, but I've seen enough of these teams to firmly believe that Syracuse if Syracuse loses in the Sweet 16, it will be because we beat ourselves.
But if we lose in the Elite 8, it might be a failure or it might just be a disappointment. Now those who think losing to a #2 or #3 seed is a automatically a failure, probably haven't watched enough college basketball. Yes, we have the potential to beat any team in the country on any given night. Yes, we probably should beat just about any team in the country on any given night, but couldn't the same be said of Missouri or Ohio State or Michigan State? All three of those teams are potential #2 seeds and having to play anyone of them in the Elite 8 scares the hell out of me. They're all match-up nightmares for different reasons (Mizzou is a lethal combination of outside shooting and penetration, Ohio State has the best on-ball defender in the country, a lethal 3 point shooter, and two very talented big guys inside, and Michigan State dominates the glass, slows the tempo, and has a foul-line zone buster in Draymond Green).
And when it comes to the tournament, it's all about match-ups. And there are some very good #2/#3 seeds that we don't match-up with especially well, which is to say, we wouldn't have to play a bad game to lose. They're good enough that both teams could play a good game and we'd still lose. So here's where I think it's important to tone down the Final Four or failure talk. If beat ourselves before the Final Four, you can chalk this season up as a failure, as potential unrealized. But if another team beats us before then in a game that we play well, and believe me that could absolutely happen depending on who we play, the season would certainly be a disappointment, but how could losing to a superior team be a failure? And that's why they play the games. Because we can point to statistics and common opponents and argue about power rankings (except for Luke Winn's - which are unequivocally the best and to say otherwise is silly), but until we see what happens when we play Kentucky or Ohio State or Michigan State or Missouri or even North Carolina, we can't say with any real confidence which team is the best.
I for one am looking forward to finding out though.
PS - For those who think talk of losing versus beating yourself is merely semantics, perhaps you're right. Usually when a team plays bad it's based on a causal effect of the opposing team playing well. But on a gut level, I think we can all point to games where Syracuse lost because they were outplayed (Blake Griffin's Oklahoma
State team in '09) and games where we beat ourselves (Marquette last season). Now clearly it's not a black and white situation and perhaps just about every loss is going to be shades of grey, but usually in your heart, you know what happened (in '05 Vermont played the game of their life hitting insane shots, but does anyone really think that if we had played a decent game, we would've lost?!)