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Ranking Syracuse’s Last 11 NCAA Tournament Runs

Using basketball computing machines to determine which runs were the most outrageous and which were the most frustrating.

Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational - Syracuse v South Carolina Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It’s Selection Sunday and Syracuse fans will be nervously shoving french onion dip in their faces this evening with the hope of seeing the Orange placed in the NCAA Tournament bracket. This is fine: Syracuse was a weird bag of unstable dark matter in 2016-2017, and even the most optimistic Orange fan is likely wrapped in the suffocating grip of permeating doubt. Whatever the selection committee chooses to do tonight with respect to Syracuse is probably fair — the Orange are the basketball equivalent of a tranche of dicey mortgages.

To pass the time until CBS unlocks the secrets of the forthcoming few weeks, I figured that it would be fun to try and burn down this internet web domain homepage on the Google machine with a favorite screaming match: Assessing which Syracuse runs in the NCAA Tournament were the best/most head-smashingly frustrating.* However, I wanted to put a spin on this and give the analysis a little more depth than “I think. . . .,” which is code for “Whatever, I don’t want to research things and this keyboard and comments section is immediately within my field of vision, so ‘GO RAGE FEELINGS!’”

To try and make this manageable, I established a fairly simple scope — 2003 through 2016, the period covering Syracuse’s 11 most recent Tournament appearances — and accessed publicly-available quantitative data supplied from That data was then utilized as follows to establish the ranking of NCAA Tournament runs:

  1. Using pre-NCAA Tournament efficiency information, the number of expected victories against all opponents faced was determined. Taking the difference between expected wins and actual victories yielded a first-cut sorting: Overachievement against underachievement. For example, if a team was expected to win two games but won three, that appearance was deemed better than one from a team that was expected to win two games but won only one.
  2. As a second-cut method of sorting, pre-NCAA Tournament efficiency information was utilized to simulate the entire Tournament bracket for a particular year — simulated 20,000 times — to determine the the probability of Syracuse progressing through each round. Lower probabilities with higher positive differential in actual wins versus expected wins created a higher ranking; higher probabilities with lower negative differentials in actual wins versus expected wins created a lower ranking.

In short: Teams that progressed further when not expected to ended up with stronger NCAA Tournament performance grades; those with high ceilings that bombed out ended with weaker NCAA Tournament run grades. Importantly, pre-Tournament ratings were utilized as that’s when most humans set their expectations for a final March push.

Here’s how the analysis shook out:

1. 2003: National Champion

Record: 30-5, 13-3

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 20

Final Ranking: 8

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~1% (77:1)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 2.8

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 6 (duh)


Syracuse is the only national champion since 2003 to (A) win three games in the NCAA Tournament against opponents that finished the year in the top 10 of, and (B) did so while also needing to upset at least two of those opponents. (2005 North Carolina, 2009 North Carolina, 2015 Duke, and 2016 Villanova all had to knock off three teams that ended the season in the top 10 of, but none had to register victories against at least two teams that closed the year higher in the ratings.)

Taking this further into the the deep and raging river: The probability of Syracuse beating Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas in its final three games, based on final ratings (which include the data from those victories, thus escalating the level of concentrated bonkers): ~8%. The Orange played out of its damn skull at the apex of the year, registering offensive performances against Texas and Kansas that were among the five best against both teams in 2003 and holding Oklahoma to its worst offensive output of the season.

There’s a decent argument that only 2014 Connecticut had a more mind-bending March push, but the Huskies didn’t have the potentially crippling final three games that Syracuse faced. Winning the whole damn thing is really hard (just look at the Tournament win probabilities that will come out this week and they’ll be lower than you probably think, even for the strongest teams in the nation) and even great teams stumble, but Syracuse managed to play above its head a shade — even with one of the best freshman to ever play in the NCAA — and that’s pretty special.

2. 2016: National Semifinalist

Record: 23-14, 9-9

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 39

Final Ranking: 27

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~2% (53:1)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 2.2

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 4


Teams don’t have bottomless buckets of efforts like those that the Orange put together against Virginia and Gonzaga (Syracuse’s February 2017 efforts aside). Yet, the Orange, somehow, got these ball-busting freak-outs in consecutive efforts in the Tournament. Running with Gonzaga, the Orange took the game’s final lead with 22 seconds left in regulation after Mike Gbinije collected his own blocked shot and put the rebound home for a 61-60 lead. And that wasn’t even enough to seal the victory: Tyler Lydon had to block a Josh Perkins shot with four ticks on the scoreboard to preserve the win.

Against Virginia? Syracuse only needed to overcome Tony Bennett’s 68-0 record at Virginia when leading by 10 points or more at the half, somehow adding accelerant to the Cavaliers’ glacial pace and eroding its machine-like efficiency at both ends of the floor.

If you were to project Syracuse’s odds against Virginia and Gonzaga using post-Tournament values, the Orange would have only about a 10% probability of sweeping both games, with the Orange about a one-point ‘dog to the ‘Zags and a six-point shot against the Cavs. This, even excluding the specific circumstances around how the victories came to be, was an impressive and incredible two-game rush. (Pre-Tournament, Gonzaga would be giving about two points and Virginia about eight.)

2016 Syracuse wasn’t nearly as strong as 2003 Syracuse regardless of whether the metric considered is pre- or post-Tournament, and that informs the idea that 2016 Syracuse was existing in a different universe. But 2016 Syracuse didn’t wrestle with as many alpha predators and 2003 Syracuse did, and the fact that 2003 Syracuse came out of the run unscathed keeps 2016 Syracuse just behind the national championship team.

3. 2013: National Semifinalist

Record: 30-10, 11-7

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 12

Final Ranking: 9

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~14% (6:1)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 3.0

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 4


A solid, if not exceptional, push from Syracuse in a Tournament where the Orange were forced to face two teams — Indiana and Michigan — that finished the year ranked in the top five on Overcoming an Indiana team in the Sweet Sixteen pounds this iteration of the Orange forward: Throttling the Hoosiers by 11 when expected to face a minus-four margin, Syracuse held one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country to just a 20% conversion rate from behind the arc while muscling Indiana to take 32% of its attempts from beyond the arc. It was an upset and one that provided a great residual benefit: Marquette’s spoiling of Miami allowed the Orange to face the weakest team among the top four seeds in its region in order to advance to Atlanta (Syracuse stood as a three-point favorite against the Golden Eagles based on pre-Tournament ratings).

The downside of this run was that Syracuse maybe left a national title game appearance in its holster. Overall, however, the team realized its potential in the Tournament and even doused it in a little extra sauce.

4. 2004: Sweet Sixteen

Record: 23-8, 11-5

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 36

Final Ranking: 30

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~20% (4:1)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 1.4

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 2


2004 Syracuse probably isn’t garnering a lot of praise for the exhibition it displayed — berths that end in the Sweet Sixteen are generally footnoted in fan folklore — but Jim Boeheim took an average team with two high usage players — Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara — and manufactured a second-weekend advancement that placed the Orange in a toss-up position (or close enough to a toss-up position) in every single game that it played.

The fact that Syracuse won twice while only expected to win once against its three opponents — an underseeded BYU team with a massive interior presence in Rafael Araujo, a solid Maryland team that won the ACC Tournament and was, based on pre-Tournament ratings, a three-point favorite against the Orange, and an Alabama team that was essentially Syracuse’s equal despite seeding considerations — is a testament to Boeheim’s ability to coax something desirable from an otherwise nondescript rock.

5. 2012: Elite Eight

Record: 34-3, 17-1

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 7

Final Ranking: 5

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~40% (3:2)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 2.5

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 3


The suspension of Fab Melo will forever color the memory of 2012 Syracuse, but, even with Melo rendered unavailable to Syracuse for organized madness, the Orange painted a portrait that is as heartening as it is unfulfilled.

Syracuse, offensively, was an absolute death ray in the Tournament, especially against its first three opponents (the team lagged defensively against its season-long profile, and there’s sufficient evidence to believe that Melo’s mandated disappearance played a factor in that defensive downturn). Then came Ohio State, a team that would have been an issue for Syracuse even if the Orange had the services of its starting center: Pre-Tournament ratings — which obviously include the contributions of Melo — installed Syracuse as a three-point ‘dog to the Buckeyes. Beating Ohio State was never a guarantee, and simply playing at regular speed would not have been enough to slip into the Final Four if the Buckeyes hit their marks.

There’s no shame in an Elite Eight banner, especially one in which the team just about played to its capacity and ran into another high-end team that was able to impart more wonks to the head than the Orange. More always sounds good, but Syracuse dodged bullets and just about did what it was expected to achieve in circumstances that often wash out teams without any satisfactory explanation.

6. 2009: Sweet Sixteen

Record: 28-10, 11-7

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 18

Final Ranking: 16

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~41% (3:2)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 1.7

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 2


Look at this team: Without a senior playing more than 35% of available minutes and the core of the team’s 2009-2010 assassin squad still developing, a top 16-quality team crashed out of the NCAA Tournament exactly where it should. That’s about what could be expected from this team; asking anything further is hoping for miracles and a cold front of Hershey’s Kisses to move through the area.

The Orange didn’t register an upset in its three games, but did swamp a Stephen F. Austin team that it was expected to dismantle and split two toss-up games against an underseeded Arizona State team and an overseeded (at least by pre-Tournament rankings) Oklahoma team. It’s all just . . . okay.


7. 2006: First Round

Record: 23-12, 7-9

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 51

Final Ranking: 50

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~58% (2:3)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 0.4

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 0


A hilariously overseeded team due to McNamara’s historic Big East Tournament bazaar, the Orange were placed in a toss-up game against Texas A&M and were unable to mount any kind of significant charge with McNamara’s groin officially on vacation. The result is disappointing based on Syracuse’s quality relative to the Aggies, but considering that the team’s gravity was spun out into another universe, the outcome of the Tournament isn’t all that bad (especially in light of the fact that the team wouldn’t have sniffed a March adventure without its nutty expedition in the Garden).

8. 2010: Sweet Sixteen

Record: 30-5, 15-3

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 3

Final Ranking: 3

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~67% (1:2)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 2.4

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 2


Greg Monroe will never be forgiven for tearing up Arinze Onuaku’s quad tendon in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. 2010 Syracuse was, by a wide margin, the most consistently excellent team in the periods examined and without the contributions of the team’s starting center — Onuaku had a 66.8 field goal percentage (12th nationally), a block rate that ranked 178th in the country, and an 11.5 offensive rebounding percentage (177th in the NCAA) — the Orange was left to assemble something only reminiscent of its regular season dominance.

It all came apart for Syracuse against Butler in the Sweet Sixteen: Entering the game with ~66% win probability based on pre-Tournament ratings (which, obviously, include Onuaku’s contributions and is somewhat, but not entirely, distortive), Syracuse authored its 11th worst defensive performance of the year and etched its second worst offensive performance of the season into its headstone. It was an awful, flesh-tearing loss, even with the knowledge of Onuaku being sidelined. The beauty and repulsiveness of the NCAA Tournament’s format is that while Syracuse, at capacity, was expected to win six or seven games against Butler in a 10-game series, the Tournament only cares about one moment — even a moment of disgusting basketball — to determine continued participation.

2010 Syracuse will remain the ultimate case study in Shit, Man.

9. 2014: Round of 32

Record: 28-6, 14-4

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 16

Final Ranking: 18

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~84% (1:6)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 1.5

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 1


Dayton’s run to the Elite Eight masked some of the pain associated with this Tournament appearance, but the Flyers’ push to the precipice of the Final Four wouldn’t have happened if the Orange simply took care of business in Buffalo: Entering the game as a six-point favorite and with a 70% win probability based on pre-Tournament values, Syracuse picked an awful moment to have an absolutely brutal performance. Importantly:

  • Expected to generate over 1.1 points per possession against a defense ranked just 99th in adjusted defensive efficiency prior to the release of the bracket, Syracuse was only able to pop for 0.91 points per possession against a team it was designed to destruct. Failing to connect on a three ultimately doomed the Orange: Taking almost 20 percent of its shots from distance, Syracuse’s 0-fer was dramatically painful as Dayton, over the course of the year, marked a 33.2% in three-point defense while the Orange were connecting on 34.5% of their attempts. With so few possessions in the game — only 58 were played — the failure to maximize offensive possessions crushed Syracuse’s hopes.
  • Holding on to a 40-37 lead with 7:50 remaining in regulation and possession returning to the team after a Vee Sanford travel on the ensuing Dayton possession, the Orange were at their peak win probability for the game, hovering just above 80%. Then came the anger: A 2:12 scoring drought featuring five missed shots from Syracuse (three at the rim) allowed the Flyers to go on a 7-0 run and build a four-point advantage that Dayton would never relinquish. Syracuse would find a way to draw within one with 18 seconds left in regulation, but the damage was already done in a miserable stretch where the Orange couldn’t bag a bucket.

A basketball is a cruel, dead cow.

10. 2011: Round of 32

Record: 27-8, 12-6

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 13

Final Ranking: 13

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~86% (1:6)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 1.5

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 1


It’s another edition of Dammit: The Adventures of the Dumbass NCAA Tournament. After pasting Indiana State, Syracuse drew Marquette, a team it was expected to beat about ~63% of the time in a neutral court environment due to a four-point expected margin of victory. This wasn’t a slam-dunk type of date, but Syracuse carpet-bombed its chances by turning in its seventh worst offensive showing of the season — scoring at under a point per possession despite putting up 1.1 on an adjusted basis over the course of the year — while also getting manhandled on the defensive boards and turning the ball over at a rate that significantly exceeded its usual degree of giveaways.

The Orange dropped a turd at least opportune time and it shattered any hope of attacking a North Carolina team that it was more than qualified to run against.

11. 2005: Round of 64

Record: 23-8, 11-5

Pre-Tournament Ranking: 16

Final Ranking: 16

Probability of Advancing to Actual Terminus: ~30% (7:3)

Expected Wins Against Opponents Faced: 0.7

Actual Wins Against Opponents Faced: 0


Drown T.J. Sorrentine in acid.


* Let’s be clear: These 3,000 words or so assess only the strength/fun/outrageousness of Syracuse’s last 11 NCAA Tournament appearances. None of this is designed to address which teams were the best under Boeheim from 2003 through 2016 (even though Boeheim conflates the two ideas). This is only focused on the run itself and holds no purpose other than to address that idea.