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Let’s have an honest conversation about Syracuse’s ceiling this year

It’s time.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange fell to the North Carolina Tar Heels on Monday night, dropping their record to 11-8 overall and 3-3 in the ACC. SU’s shown itself to be a bit better than the disaster we witnessed for portions of the non-conference schedule, but they’re still showing an inability to really hang with top-25 caliber talent (especially away from home).

With eight losses, Syracuse is far from eliminated from NCAA Tournament contention right now. But let’s be real: the most difficult parts of this schedule are still to come, and the Orange can’t seem to keep up against top opponents. Six of the final 12 regular season opponents are in the current top 25 (including the next one, Notre Dame). Assuming they lose all of those and win every other game, that Syracuse squad would be 17-14 with zero quality wins.

That’s not a tournament team.

But is that the most realistic outcome for Syracuse this year? That’s what we need to figure out here. Because with a dozen games left, this fan base needs to know what we’re tuning in to see. Is it a team that could get lucky and scrape by enough quality wins to get into a bubble conversation before the start of the ACC Tournament? Or are we already dead on arrival, just playing out the string?

Rather than using Syracuse’s one-sided loss to a top-10 team last night as the bar for what the Orange can be, it’s probably worth looking at the three-game stretch from the Pitt win through the Virginia Tech loss instead. Those three contests showed everything SU was capable of against power conference opponents (quality defense and reasonably good shooting), while also showing what could go terribly wrong (opponents getting hot from three, Tyler Lydon not showing up and/or bad guard play).

If we’re siding with blind optimism, the “good” Syracuse team that showed itself vs. Pitt and Miami could find a way to go 8-4. Duke’s taking on water and if you really believe, you’ll find a way to talk yourself into a win over one of Virginia, Florida State or Louisville, too. I don’t buy it, but again, we’re playing with the Orange’s absolute ceiling here.

NCAA Basketball: Miami at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Now, is THAT team a tournament team? The conference resume looks the part (11-7), and the 19-12 overall record sounds like legitimate bubble talk. But again, zero quality road wins, zero quality non-conference wins. Without a two-game run in the ACC Tournament, it’s still tough for even the most sunny-sided fan to tell themselves this is a team bound for the NCAAs.

That may be okay. We just need to be warned of it in advance, and in many ways we have been. As fans, we also have to keep sight of that reality, even if Syracuse starts to prove that wrong with a random upset here and there. It’s not failing to buy in. It’s just stopping yourself from disappointment and disinterest if they end up failing to make the tournament.

Now let’s enjoy the rest of this season, no matter what happens. We’re probably missing the tournament, but that doesn’t mean we can’t mess some things up and improve as a team in the process.