There are many ways to describe the Syracuse Orange's run to the Final Four this time around. Improbable. Impossible. Amazing. Astounding. It's the kind of streak that has pundits and prognosticators grasping at straws while others remain staunch in their depictions of this year's team.
Say hello to our favorite buzzwords and phrases for this time of year: Cinderella and sleeper.
It's easy to make the case that the Orange fits into both categories, believe it or not.
When The Slipper Fits...
By definition, a Cinderella team is "one that unexpectedly achieves recognition or success after a period of obscurity and neglect." Syracuse has had a pretty tumultuous season, with winning the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, the nine-game suspension served by Coach Boeheim starting with the Georgetown game, the 0-4 start to conference play, the stretch where they went 8-1 in the span of a month from the middle of January through Valentine's Day, to losing five of their final six games going into Selection Sunday. Several so-called Bracketology "experts" said that this team wouldn't make it very far in the NCAA Tournament if they were even invited.
First, the Fairy Godmother granted them a spot in the field as a 10-seed in the Midwest Region. On their way to the Ball, they handled a tough Dayton squad. Syracuse then came upon a surprise Middle Tennessee State team looking to crash the party. They were able to fend off the pesky Blue Raiders and trudge on. Gonzaga posed a threat, almost sending the Orange tumbling down the 2015-16 season cliff, but their horseman Trevor Cooney was able to steer them in the right direction. The final obstacle that crossed Syracuse's path was ACC foe Virginia. But, just as the clock was about to strike midnight before even arriving at the main event, Malachi Richardson took over the reins as he and the rest of the team upped the tempo with their full-court press. How could they not be considered a Cinderella with a metaphor like Tyler Lydon losing his shoe?
Now that they have arrived at the Ball, they are in search of their "Prince," but they will have to go through their "ugly stepsisters": UNC. The task will be daunting, but they've come close two other times this season. Who's to say the third time isn't a Charm[ing]? (See what I did there?)
Long story short, Syracuse has overcome their "period of obscurity and neglect" -- last year's self-imposed ban and the talking heads neglecting the fact that they played some very good teams, and won a few of those games, this year -- and has thrived over the past two weeks.
The Tournament is No Place for a Nap
A sleeper is "a team that no one expects to be good. They come out of nowhere and everyone is surprised by their level of play." At the beginning of this season, Syracuse wasn't ranked until the fourth week of the season, debuting at No. 19 after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis. Their 4-5 record under the direction of Coach Hop made people start to doubt just how good this team was. The subsequent 8-2 run when Boeheim returned restored much hope, particularly within the fanbase. But, the 1-4 stretch to end the regular season, followed by the loss to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament, spurned the media to write the team off as NIT-bound at most. Their future looked pretty bleak.
The basketball Gods granted Syracuse a fresh start. They took the opportunity and ran with it, beating Dayton by 19 and MTSU by 25 en route to the Sweet 16. It didn't stop outsiders from downgrading the Flyers or stating that the Orange wouldn't have been so lucky if they had had to face No. 2-seed Michigan State.
Gonzaga posed a test, which they passed thanks to several key plays in the last few minutes of the game. The media continued to write them off. It all came down to what they would do against No. 1-seed Virginia. At about the 9:30 mark in the second half, just when it looked like this magical run might have finally run its course, the defense locked the Cavaliers into a corner and pulled off one of the most miraculous comebacks in the Tournament thus far. Though, nothing will ever hold a candle to UNI's meltdown against Texas A&M in the second round.
Some of those who had called this Syracuse run through the Tournament a fluke have come to realize that maybe this team was this good all along, they just hadn't seen it.
After careful consideration of all of the elements mentioned above, I am leaning more toward calling the Orange a sleeper. We saw spurts of how good this team could be at different points throughout the season. The first test was beating Texas A&M in the Battle 4 Atlantis Championship game during Thanksgiving weekend. The second was winning by 28 against Wake Forest in January. Finally, and most notably, was beating Duke at Duke, one of the toughest arenas for opposing teams to play in. Not to mention, Syracuse also handled a ranked Notre Dame team and won comfortably against Florida State in the first of two meetings with the Seminoles this year.
As Boeheim said when he stepped up to the podium at yesterday's pep rally in Manley Field House, this team most certainly deserves to be here.
They most certainly do. We've known they had this kind of run in them all along, we were just collectively unsure about when, and if, it would happen. Thankfully for us, it has come during the most important time of the year and we get to enjoy the ride.
May the naysayers keep doubting this team.
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There's a great discussion about Syracuse's run in the Tournament on FiveThirtyEight's "Hot Takedown" podcast this week, which you can check out here.
What do you all think? Is this team a Cinderella or a sleeper in your eyes? Discuss away!
And, as always, G'Orange!