Make shots, play defense, win basketball games. Easy, right?
OK, so it's a little more complicated than that, but for the Syracuse Orange, when James Southerland, C.J. Fair, and Brandon Triche are making shots, when Michael Carter-Williams is driving to the basket and looking for teammates, and when its defense isn't giving up open looks close to the basket, basketball isn't too difficult.
In January, Syracuse hit shots and played team defense. In February, while the competition got tougher, the Orange stopped making shots and was exposed on defense.
If Syracuse plays like it did in New York City, the Final Four is a legit possibility. If Syracuse plays like it did before NYC, well, you can forget about making plans for D.C. By now, we mostly know what to expect out of this team.
We'll just never know what to expect out of March:
For example: the 1996 West Regional semifinal. Syracuse v. upset-minded Georgia. The winner would likely face No. 1 seed in the West region, Kansas (who had to get past loaded Arizona first), so most thought the Bulldogs and Orangemen were playing in something of a JV game. One with a thanks-for-playing-now-here's-your-parting-gifts feel to it. Syracuse was expected to win, but not the way it won.
And we all know what happened next:
The Orangeman, with John Wallace and Lazarus Sims leading the way, beat Tubby Smith's Bulldogs and went on, in one of the biggest upsets of the tourney that year, to beat the mighty Jayhawks - with future pros Paul Pierce and Scott Pollard and Jacque Vaughn and Raef LaFrentz. Most figured SU would get a win or two in the tourney and then be done. Instead, Syracuse would go all the way to the championship game.
The unexpected joys of March.
There can also be the unexpected heartaches:
2005. Look away now Syracuse fans. The Orange, flying high after winning the Big East tournament for the first time in 13 years, go from under the radar to a trendy Final Four pick. Then...
Even the "experts" that picked Vermont to upset the Orange didn't expect it to play out the way it did. A wild overtime affair in an old gym in front of a mostly partisan crowd. There would be no trip to the Final Four, or even to the second game of the tourney. Hakim Warrick, Josh Pace, and Craig Forth all had their careers come to a sudden halt.
Let's shift gears and bring everyone in from off the ledge:
The good memories of March and the 2003 national championship run for the Orange for fans. But some of those fans, in the decade since(!), may have forgotten that Oklahoma State had No. 3 seed Syracuse dead to rights:
17 points. That's how many points the Orangemen, led by super freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, trailed in the second round. That was, of course, until Anthony, McNamara (stitched up after getting head-butted in the...head), and Billy Edelin helped the Orange claw back and eventually take the game over in the second half.
Remember that press? Jeremy McNeil, with help up front, was like a goalie back then! The Orangemen woke up and stood their ground and won. There was a belief that Syracuse was good enough to reach New Orleans that season, but I'm not sure fans really bought in until the comeback against the Cowboys.
In '96 SU wasn't supposed to go on a run, in '03 most Orange followers had hopes something special would happen, but in 1991, everyone expected Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens, Dave Johnson, and company to go far.
But March doesn't care for expectations sometimes:
Remember last season? No. 1 seed Syracuse, playing without "star" center Fab Melo, fights for its tournament life against the perceptually gritty Badgers of Wisconsin. A recipe for disaster, right?
In possibly the most exciting game of the tourney, this Orange collection learned the meaning of "survive and advance" when it comes to March. The Badgers hit 14 three pointers and turned the ball over just six times! Yet somehow, someway, SU moved on. A battle won.
In 1995, playing defending champion Arkansas, Lawrence Moten and Lucious Jackson were on the losing side of a hard-fought battle:
Moten grabed the ball, and with a one point lead and just six seconds to go against the favored Razorbacks, signaled for a timeout. A timeout SU didn't have.
The Hogs hit some free throws, force OT and eventually make it all the way back to the title game.
March can be tough to swallow.
But it can of course lead to the ultimate joy. The very reason why we're all in. Why we don't just watch, we live and die. Why we come back for more year after year. Even if we're not sure if it will be worth it, March has ways to make moments shine.
The highest highs and the lowest lows. Even if you know exactly what your favorite team is, good and bad, you never know where the next few weeks will take it. And like it or not, the madness is about to start.