The Syracuse Orange men's basketball season has reached the quarter pole, and with a 5-3 overall record, fans are ready to take it and bury it in the snow outside their windows.
Currently in the middle of a two-game, non-conference losing streak, something that hasn't happened since the 2006-07 season, the Orange are taking the week to prepare for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (7-2)–a squad that is the favorite to win the Conference USA crown.
SU needs the rebound victory, as the No. 7-ranked Villanova Wildcats are on the schedule the following Saturday, Dec. 20. If things go badly, Syracuse could be looking at a 5-5 record for the first time since, well, Jim Boeheim wasn't even the head coach at Syracuse when it was at or below the .500 mark 10 games into a season. (Note: it was 1968-69, when the Orange began 3-7.)
At this point, SU men's hoops supporters are worried about a bunch of things: First, has Syracuse already played its way out of the NCAA Tournament at-large bid? Second, if hasn't, will it with the ACC schedule? Finally, can this team get better so it can play earn a NCAA bid?
Ladies and gentlemen, this piece today is to talk you off the ledge a bit. To look at the Syracuse glass half full instead of half empty. How will this piece do this? By showing this Syracuse basketball team isn't that far away from being a NCAA contender.
1) The NCAA's 68-team field allows some leeway for medicore teams
Sometimes fans forget we live in a world in which 68 teams make the NCAA Tournament. This means a lot of below-average squads qualify for at-large bids. Here's a rundown of a few squad that weren't so good during the regular season and made the NCAAs during the past few seasons.
|#12 NC State||#12 Xavier||#11 Iowa||#11 Tennessee||#12 Mississippi||#12 California|
|Noted wins in non-con.||W over Tenn.||W over Cin.||W over Xav.||W over Virginia||N/A||N/A|
|Overall Conference record||(9-9)||(10-8)||(9-9)||(11-7)||(12-6)||(13-5)|
A first, Syracuse fans will take look at each team's overall record after its first 10 games and say, "Syracuse could be 6-4 after 10 games, and if they lose to Villanova have no shot at a solid non-conference win, so how is it that SU qualifies as one of these teams?"
The answer: It doesn't... Yet.
There's a long way to go folks. Last year, Iowa was fantastic in the non-conference and the first half of Big Ten Conference play and crapped the bed in the second half. N.C. State had T.J. Warren, a few other pieces, but didn't look like a NCAA team until a small late-season push that included a victory over struggling Syracuse.
If you're looking for advanced stats to make you feel better? How about N.C. State being ranked No. 55 in KemPom standings at the end of last year, while Xavier was ranked 59th. Syracuse is currently 32nd.
Both '13 Ole Miss and '12 Cal were slotted in the 30s.
Also don't forget, the Orange still have home game against a top-ten program in Villanova. A win there would be a big boost to SU's resume.
The final point here is with a 68-team field Syracuse can slop its way through the non-conference, but it has plenty of time to earn a few "NCAA qualifying" wins during ACC play to get in.
Face it, the bar to make the NCAA Tournament isn't what it used to be. Same thing can be said about the quality of teams.
Side NCAA thought: Call it a conspiracy theory, but if there's one thing Syracuse may have going for them at the moment it is the play of Rakeem Christmas, who could play his way into an early-first round pick, and the NBA lottery talent of Chris McCullough.
When it comes to stories, the NCAA Tournament committee loves them and it will try its best NOT to leave out very good players if it can.
I can make this case because Marshall Henderson's Ole Miss. Rebels squad, somehow, was a No. 12-seed after putting together a very mediocre resume in 2013.
If Christmas and McCullough continue to play well they will be a duo that the committee could use as a tiebreaker to get them into the tournament.
2) McCullough should get better, as should Michael Gbinije
Setting aside the conspiracy theories, the Orange should have a three-headed front court that not only should get better as the season moves along, but should be very good by the end of it.
At this point, we know Christmas is going to be solid (16.9 ppg and 9.8 rpg). McCullough has the talent to be really good, as he is averaging 14.4 ppg and 8.8 rpg, and Gbinije has struggled badly (7.6 ppg and 3.9 rpg).
Who knows why Gbinije hasn't played with consistency, but the move to the starting lineup might be a good start.
3) Despite SU's awful shooting it has been in games. So, that's good right?
Currently, the Orange rank 13th in the ACC in scoring offense, field goal percentage (44.4), and 14th in 3-point field goal percentage (27 of 128 for 21.1%). In its three losses, SU is shooting 23.2% from behind the 3-point line and 41.1% from the floor.
Good news? It's not as bad as shooting a combined 36.7% field goal percentage in last year's late-season losses Dayton, N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Virginia.
Not sure if that makes you feel better, but here's the thing, there's still three-fourth of the season left. Now, that could mean Syracuse fans endure a AWFUL season, or there's plenty enough time for Jim Boeheim to figure it all out.
I've made this point before and I'll make it again. This Orange squad isn't like the ones fans have watched in the past, and a lot of it is because this team hasn't played together. It hasn't had the reps in late-game situations, it hasn't had the practice time to figure out the best way to use its offensive weapons and it hasn't had the time to get that confidence it needs to pull-off tight games.
And that's the thing too, Syracuse has been in these losses. Besides Cal's impressive performance to put away the Orange, this team was even with Michigan with 34 seconds remaining in the game. The case was the same versus St. John's with 3:53 to go until Phil Greene IV went off.
All-in-all, this team has the talent to win games against NCAA-caliber teams. It is the consistency that is turning wins into losses.
In conclusion, this piece may not make you feel any better about this year's squad. What it should do is make you realize it is far from over and there's a lot of time left in the season to turn it from a lost one to a feel-good one.
Just hang in there.