At the conclusion of the Syracuse Orange’s 72-63 win over the UConn Huskies on Tuesday night, the feeling (for me) was relief.
Not for beating a rival or just winning a game. But for not losing to a lesser team that could potentially have harmed our resume come NCAA Tournament selection time (as it undoubtedly did last year).
This seemed to be echoed around portions of Syracuse Twittersphere after the game as well. In season five without the Big East, these annual games against Georgetown and UConn, only put back on the schedule a few years ago, already feel like a checked box instead of the heated matchups they once were.
But is that our fault? Or is it a sign of the current state of affairs -- both for college basketball at large and our chief rivals?
The purpose of this discussion isn’t to needlessly troll UConn. They’ve already lost, and that’s enough for me. But the biggest takeaway for me in winning is just not having to hear about it from their fans on Twitter. For some of you, perhaps it’s about avoiding those in-person reactions. I know Dan, a Connecticuter himself, has stated that the dread about this game comes largely from the fan-focused aftermath of a loss.
UConn, despite a championship in 2014 (call it lucky if you’d like; I certainly do), has not looked like itself in recent seasons. Last year’s 16-17 record being the low mark of the recent run. The AAC’s leftover NCAA Tournament unit payouts are drying up soon, and that will create a larger gap between the Huskies and college basketball’s elite. You can’t erase four titles. But you can gradually erase the factors that helped create them (a strong conference, ample financial support, great incoming talent, strong coaching).
Syracuse, for what it’s worth, isn’t necessarily itself either, lately. But you can point to short-term factors there. The conference move coincided with NCAA sanctions, and both of those changed recruiting in ways we didn’t anticipate. Unexpected departures did too. Despite all of that, we still have the same coach, and we still made the Final Four less than two years ago.
We’ll get into Georgetown’s predicament next week in the lead-up to our matchup with the Hoyas. But their own downfall does appear to be rather linked to what’s been a weird period for all three former Big East powers. However, SU’s the one best positioned to shake themselves out of it. An incoming top-15 recruiting class is just one of many ways that can happen.
It’s also the one best positioned to move on from the rivalries that formed in the league that made this program what it is today: The Big East. In the ACC, there are national brands and huge television contracts and seemingly endless attention. These games against Georgetown and UConn (and for a few years, St. John’s) only served to hurt our resume, not help it. The non-conference schedule can make or break you from a tournament standpoint, as we’ve seen in each of the last two years.
For myself, a younger graduate (2010), this can be an easier break than it will be for those who’ve rooted for the Orange for many decades longer than I have. I was a fan growing up, sure. But not like I was once I arrived on campus. For a large portion of this fan base, the rivalries with Georgetown and UConn make up a full 30-year stretch of their adult lives. You cant just erase that overnight.
But it may be erased just the same. You heard it on Tuesday night, the way the game was described during and after on ESPN. The “used to be” and “once was” labels were everywhere. The rivalry was framed in the past, with highlights focused on the games we played YEARS ago at this point. Even the six overtime game isn’t that recent anymore. It’s still the greatest game of all-time, mind you. But not for the same reasons it was then. Syracuse-UConn WAS a battle of East Coast college basketball titans, vying for supremacy in the country’s greatest league.
Now? It’s a nostalgia quest that still grabs enough eyeballs to make it worth it for ESPN.
All of this may not be permanent. We don’t truly know where UConn’s trajectory lies, even if we guess above. And for Syracuse too, it’s tough to say exactly what these last few years of Jim Boeheim’s tenure bring. The broadcast rights landscape is shifting rapidly, and who knows when conference realignment ends up a thing again. All of this could potentially just be a temporary stay before everything gets back together under a new (ACC) banner.
But if it doesn’t, well, then it was fun while it lasted, UConn. You weren’t our first rival, but you were a worthy stand-in for a couple decades. Those memories at the height of the Big East aren’t vanishing for those of us that were there. But eventually, there’s enough new students and fans that don’t remember any of it that you’re entirely defined by the past.
The rivalry may not be dead, but it’s on life support. You can probably say the same about Georgetown too. If I’m proven wrong there, great. But once we figure out which ACC team we really, truly hate (and no, it can’t be Duke), that might just make it official.
(on the other hand, it was fun making this stupid video yesterday, an there probably isn’t a single ACC basketball team I’d do that for)