The second you think you have Syracuse Orange basketball figured out, it’ll find a way to trick you again.
Last year’s team looked dead in the water after a difficult stretch to end the season. They made the Final Four. The same could be said about the 2013 team, which limped into the Big East Tournament before getting hot, and then riding a stifling defense to the sport’s final weekend.
There are countless other examples over the course of SU’s history under Jim Boehem -- hell, even including Saturday’s about-face by the coach himself about what matters, wins vs. Final Fours -- but this year’s edition of Orange basketball may take the cake.
In four games against lesser competition to start the year, Syracuse won by at least 21 each time and looked stellar on the offensive end. In the two losses to South Carolina and Wisconsin, respectively, after that, SU’s offense was completely derailed and suffocated. This trend would continue. The Orange’s offense found a groove against bad teams, while they were shut down by power conference squads. SU’s defense, a work in progress, looked miserable against bad power teams like St. John’s and Boston College.
At 8-6 and 0-1 in league play following the BC loss, we thought we knew what this team was: individual pieces that just had too much to learn about playing together and the vaunted Orange zone. A big defeat at Boston College spelled such a dire future that we weren’t even sure Syracuse could win another seven games this season.
Since then, SU’s 2-0, with resounding wins over Miami and Pitt. The offense that struggled is averaging 73.5 points per game in that stretch (and even more in ACC play), while the zone is suddenly closing in on its former successes, too. With Tyler Lydon manning the center spot, Syracuse allowed 61 points per game to the formidable Hurricanes and Panthers.
The team’s depth, which was supposed to be its strongest asset in 2016-17, is a thing of the past. Boeheim’s leaned largely on a five-man rotation to guide this group to two straight victories. It’s what we’re used to, yes. But not at all what we expected.
Still, SU is far from “back,” despite two consecutive wins. The 10-6 overall mark, paired with 2-1 in the ACC looks better and it is. But it’s only a two-game subsection of a very long season. Until we see more efforts strung together like the Pitt and Miami games, were those the outliers? Or will we be able to bury the memories of those six miserable losses? With so many unknown quantities on this team, it’s dangerous to ever really say we “know” what we’re going to get from one night to the next.
And y’know what? That’s fine.
Look around college basketball right now, and every night you’ll spot an upset or odd happening. While recruiting rankings make it look like power is consolidating at a handful of programs, the results couldn’t be any further from that reality. Last year’s Final Four featured one blue-blood (North Carolina), two teams that recruit at a top-25 level (SU, Villanova) and another that’s even further outside that conversation (Oklahoma).
Sure, that’s only a year after Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Wisconsin made the Final Four. But the nightly upsets all year should be the more notable trend going forward. In the last week alone, the following ranked teams have been upset: Wisconsin, USC, Villanova, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Virginia, West Virginia. That’s a wild ride for a week of conference play, and it’s only going to get wilder. Perhaps Syracuse can assimilate itself to that narrative now, in a season where it may take awhile to sniff the rankings again.
They’ll have a chance on Tuesday night against the Virginia Tech Hokies. While SU may have more talent on the roster and classically be thought of as the “better” team in the matchup, Tech is the one at 12-3 and hanging around the top 25.
Recent results say Syracuse pulls this upset too, but that’s also what this team and season want you to think. The unknown can be unsettling, and frustrating for fans. But that’s why we watch. For once, let’s be happy that we have zero clue what this SU team is going to look like on a nightly basis, and hope opponents feel the same way.