The Syracuse Orange have been a winning basketball program for a very long time. Their last non-winning record was a 12-12 season in 1970-71. The last losing record was the year before that, a 9-16 season that was understandably forgettable.
Those teams were coached by Roy Danforth, and while many may remember the former SU coach more for opening the door for Jim Boeheim’s tenure than those seasons, he did make it to a Final Four just a few years later.
Despite the lows of the 1969-70 and 1970-71 seasons, he was able to engineer a gradual turnaround. 19-7 in year three, 22-6 in year four, two early exits in the NCAA Tournament primed the program for the 1974-75 season, when they made the Final Four.
The then-Orangemen had hit rock bottom. Even then, it was largely unfamiliar territory. But it’s territory we may become acquainted with once again.
Syracuse went 8-5 in non-conference play this season, but with the ACC schedule laid out in front of them, they had ample opportunities to turn things around.
On Sunday, the first day of the new year, they lost to lowly Boston College 96-81. The Orange rarely looked competitive in the road defeat, allowing the Eagles to carve up the zone and hit at will from beyond the arc. It was more of the same troubles that plagued them against major conference teams before ACC play started. The defensive issues are certainly not going away.
It’s easy to say the sky is falling for the program now, and as far as this season goes, it certainly is. The NCAA Tournament is not much of an option at all, and the NIT’s probably out of reach too, barring some resurgence that gets them to around 8-10 or so in league competition. There’s a very real shot that SU logs its first losing record in nearly 50 years.
The thing is, we were sort of overdue for it.
Boeheim’s long, successful career may have jaded us to the ebbs and flows of college basketball programs. But 50 years without a losing season is a tough feat to pull off — especially with the same coach for nearly the full stretch. Players change, playing styles change, and conferences shift too. Those are supposed to rattle anyone — even the greatest coaches, if only for a year.
In the time since our last losing season, all of our rivals (large and small) have experienced runs of ineptitude. UConn’s in the middle of a 5-8 start right now, and had losing records through much of the 1980s. Georgetown went 15-18 just this past season. St. John’s has had a losing record for much of the last 15 years, though appear to be on an upswing. Duke was 13-18 in 1994-95, while North Carolina went 8-20 in 2001-02.
Every program suffers a losing season now and again, but the good ones bounce back, sometimes better than they were before. Duke and UNC followed up their worst seasons with adjustment and improvement. UConn and Georgetown have done the same. Even St. John’s and Boston College have looked better this season after long spells of failure.
This is not an endorsement of losing. But an endorsement of what you do afterward. These programs above took their turns at the bottom, and in some way or another bounced back.
Syracuse hasn’t had a turn at the bottom in 50 years. And the last time it did, it bounced back to go to the Final Four a short time after. Boeheim’s never coached Syracuse through a dip like this, really. But that doesn’t mean he can’t. And if it’s an extended, two- or three-year drop, that doesn’t mean Mike Hopkins can’t have us looking better on the other side either.
All of this isn’t really meant to make us feel better about another frustrating loss. Just remind us that despite our insistence otherwise at times, we ARE just like every other program in a lot of ways. How much better we are than those other programs is defined by what we do with these moments of failure.
A loss is an opportunity to hit reset. And so is a losing season, if it comes to that this year. If Syracuse is the program we think they are, they’ll come out of this very rough patch better for it. We just need to give the Orange a chance to do so.