For the second time in less than 10 years, Syracuse appears on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament for a second-consecutive season.
The Orange missed out on the tournament in both 2007 and 2008. Then, last year, they self-imposed a postseason ban, though they likely would have missed the tournament anyway. This season, they're just 11-7 overall and only 1-4 in the ACC, putting themselves in a deep hole.
This becomes especially noteworthy when comparing Syracuse to the other programs perceived to be among the best in college basketball. Those programs — Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina and Michigan State — haven't experienced similar slumps. In the past 10 years, neither Duke, Kansas nor Michigan State has missed the NCAA Tournament even once. Louisville and North Carolina have each missed it one time. Kentucky has missed it twice, but only once since John Calipari took over as head coach.
All of that begs a simple question: Is there a particular reason Syracuse has suffered through these spurts of having NIT-quality teams?
To go even further: Does Syracuse simply not deserve to be considered an elite program?
To answer those questions, let's take a closer look at each of SU's four down seasons since 2006-07.
The first thing to be noted with the 2006-07 team is that it almost certainly should have made the NCAA Tournament. The Orange finished 24-11 overall and 10-6 in the Big East. In late February, they topped No. 9 Georgetown, which probably should have clinched their ticket to the Big Dance. Instead, Syracuse got snubbed.
Additionally, the Orange were without talented big man Arinze Onuaku. Had he been healthy, it's at least possible that Syracuse would have won another game or two, which likely would have been enough to secure a berth in the tournament.
Unlike the previous year's team, the 2007-08 version of the Orange were rightfully left out of the NCAA Tournament. They finished just 21-14 overall and 9-9 in the Big East. Purely in terms of results, this was one of Jim Boeheim's worst teams.
This group was derailed largely by injuries. Andy Rautins suffered an injury while playing with the Canadian national team in the summer, causing him to miss the entire college basketball season. Eric Devendorf missed the majority of the season after tearing his ACL against East Tennessee State.
Additionally, guard Josh Wright — who started 27 games and played 24.1 minutes per contest during the 06-07 season — left the team in December.
None of that is to say Syracuse would've been an exceptional team with Devendorf, Rautins and Wright. But there's a convincing case to be made that the Orange would've at least made the tournament if their services were available.
As noted above, last year's team wasn't eligible for postseason play, since Syracuse self-imposed a ban. But even if it were eligible, it wasn't going dancing. The Orange finished 18-13 and 9-9 in the ACC. A 9-9 record might be enough in this year's highly-competitive ACC to make the tournament, but it's unlikely that would have been the case last season.
A few things went wrong with this team. For starters, the Orange saw both Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant depart early for the 2014 NBA Draft following the 2013-14 season, which came as a surprise to some. Then, three games into ACC play, Syracuse forward Chris McCullough tore his ACL, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. Center Dajuan Coleman missed the entire season recovering from knee surgery.
That left Syracuse without much depth or, outside of Rakeem Christmas and Michael Gbinije, talent.
This year's team, unlike the other three, hasn't been plagued by injuries. The Orange did, however, lose McCullough to the NBA. He could've been a very helpful contributor this season had he stayed, depending on his recovery process.
But it appears, at least so far, that the biggest issue with this team is that it lacks many good players. Since the Battle 4 Atlantis, Syracuse hasn't been able to do many things well on a consistent basis.
Of course, it's worth pointing out that the Orange are 7-2 this season when Jim Boeheim has coached. Boeheim recently finished serving a nine-game suspension, and Syracuse was 4-5 without him. Whether or not his return to the bench will coincide with a season turnaround remains to be seen.
To recap, here's what went wrong — or, in the case of this season's team, is currently going wrong — with each of those teams:
2006-07: Snubbed. Onuaku's injury didn't help.
2007-08: Injuries to Devendorf and Rautins, plus Wright's departure.
2014-15: Early departures by Ennis and Grant, plus injuries to Coleman and McCullough.
2015-16: Early departure by McCullough, plus a simple lack of good players.
That's a whole lot of bad luck. Between the injuries, getting snubbed from the tournament in 2007 and watching players leave early, much of which went wrong for the Orange was completely out of their control.
To me, that's largely what this boils down to: rotten luck. But the counterargument to be made is that Syracuse hasn't always prepared itself to be able to absorb such blows.
Take the 2014-15 team, for example. Four of the team's nine healthy scholarship players — B.J. Johnson, Kaleb Joseph, Ron Patterson and Chinonso Obokoh — struggled to contribute positive things.
The common denominator with each of those players: not one was a 5-star recruit. Johnson, Joseph and Patterson were 4-star recruits, while Obokoh was a 3-star recruit.
That brings me to my next point: From a recruiting standpoint, Syracuse isn't quite on the level of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina. Since 2003, Syracuse has only had four of the country's top 10 recruiting classes in a given season, according to 247Sports, which began putting together comprehensive team rankings in 2003. In that same span, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina have had at least seven such classes. Kansas has had six.
And because Syracuse isn't consistently recruiting the best of the best, it's more likely to strike out on some players. When it has a bad recruiting class or, worse, a string of bad recruiting classes, that's when a real problem can arise. And that's what happened in 2013 and 2014.
In 2013, Syracuse recruited Ennis, Johnson, Patterson, Obokoh and Tyler Roberson. Johnson, Patterson and Obokoh were all recruiting misses. That's three players in one class.
That's difficult to overcome to begin with, and the 2014 class didn't help much either. That year, Syracuse only recruited two players: Joseph and McCullough. McCullough's tenure was an unlucky one, but Joseph simply hasn't panned out.
Syracuse felt the effects of those recruiting classes last season, and it's feeling them this season, too.
Here's my takeaway: Syracuse is a good enough program to, in theory, make the NCAA Tournament every season. But because the Orange aren't quite on the level of a program like Duke or Kentucky, they have a smaller margin of error. Since they're more likely to have recruiting failures, things like injuries and early departures are more likely to derail them. And that's what we've seen at times over the past decade.