For the first time in over a week, Syracuse Orange men's basketball fans will get to see their team in action as their team hosts the Virginia Tech Hokies in an ACC showdown at the Carrier Dome. SU's second meeting with Virginia Tech marks the start of a new season for Jim Boeheim's squad, which needs some big wins to make the NCAA Tournament.
Entering the game, the Orange (14-7. 5-3 ACC) are coming off their third loss in four games, a stretch that has put the program on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble looking in (via ESPN's Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports' Jerry Palm).
This means, with 10 games remaining, Syracuse will probably need two victories against its future top-10 opponents–Duke Blue Devils (two games), Louisville Cardinals, Notre Dame Fighting Irish or Virginia Cavaliers - to have enough to make the 68-team field.
Completing that task seems improbable to most. I figure most Syracuse fans and college basketball gurus are more pessimistic about the Orange's chances than optimistic. Heck, some are claiming SU will be lucky to win three more games and Boeheim could be facing his first losing season in program history.
While there are plenty of reasons to be Mr. or Mrs. Doom-and-Gloom, there's still plenty reasons to believe this team can make a run at the big dance. Here's a few:
Syracuse has a pair of All-ACC players
Thanks to the play of senior center Rakeem Christmas and junior sharpshooter Trevor Cooney, the Orange have maybe the best inside-outside punch in the league. During league play, Christmas is averaging a league-best 20.3 points per game and is ranked third in blocked shots (1.8), fourth in field goal percentage (54.0%) and fifth in rebounding (9.3). Meanwhile, Cooney is ranked sixth in scoring (17.3 ppg), is tops in three-pointers made (3.4) and steals per game (2.4).
On most nights, those two are the best players on the floor. For 40 minutes they're going to do whatever they can to create their own shot and will play hard on both ends of the floor. Most teams in the nation don't have that.
Because of this, SU has a chance to knock off anyone in the league.
The pessimist, of course, will say the duo can't do it alone. Christmas and Cooney need junior swingman Michael Gbinije and sophomore forward Tyler Roberson to show up too. Without those guys producing, as well, SU is doomed in most games.
Syracuse has chances to earn big wins
For multiple reasons, the Orange's tough schedule is a good thing.
If SU didn't have any tough challenges left, its NCAA hopes would be basically over–unless it made an incredible ACC Tournament run. SU's current resume features a 7-7 record against the Top 150 in the RPI and no wins against anyone in the Top 50. So, beating up on inferior opponents would do nothing for them. With all these big games left, the Orange have many chances to snag a win that (in a good way) could burst their NCAA bubble.
Also, remember, this is college basketball. Upsets happen all the time, and there's no reason to believe SU can't pull off an upset or two in the next 10 games.
Syracuse's low expectations
Unlike previous seasons, the Orange's expectations are pretty low heading into March, and for the situation SU is in, that's a good thing.
Think about it. If Syracuse was expected to earn one of these big wins, than the impact on its resume wouldn't be as vast. A victory over a Top-10 program stands out more than if the Orange were clinging to a Top 25 ranking.
In the big picture, Syracuse's goal is to just make the NCAA Tournament. Seeding means nothing. So, if a big victory against a good team stands out, when it comes to the committee looking at whether they're in or out, it will help them come Selection Sunday.
Syracuse needs to keep the streak alive
In modern Syracuse basketball history, this is uncommon territory. It has been seven years since Orange fans needed to worry about its team earning a spot in the Big Dance. The lowest seed SU has earned, since it last missed the tournament in 2008, is fourth. That streak can only be matched by two other programs, Duke and the Kansas Jayhawks, who have been seeded fourth or higher all the way back to 2007. Kansas' streak extends to 2001, when they failed to make the tournament.
Now, here's your chance to weigh in. With what has been laid out, what do you think are the odds of Syracuse making the NCAA Tournament?