The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team fell to 7-4 after its loss to 14th-ranked Buffalo by a score of 71-59 on Tuesday. Four losses out of non-conference play is a far cry from the expectations of Orange faithful headed into the season, so it’s time to start asking: Were expectations too high for this year’s Syracuse basketball team?
The 2017-18 Syracuse basketball team lost 12 regular season games — two in non-conference play and 10 in ACC play. They were the last team in to the NCAA tournament field and turned that bid into a Sweet 16 trip, ultimately falling short to the Duke Blue Devils. By that point in the season, Frank Howard, Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj and Paschal Chukwu were each playing 30 or more minutes per game (foul situation permitting). Bourama Sidibe and Matthew Moyer were the only two players to play off the bench.
Once the offseason came around and Tyus Battle solidified that Syracuse would return all five starters, SU fans were left to dream about how the team could build upon its Sweet 16 run with the additions of Jalen Carey, Elijah Hughes, Buddy Boeheim and a healthy Howard Washington. College basketball writers believed in this team, too — Syracuse was ranked 16th in the first week of the season. What wasn’t considered: Syracuse was the 68th team in the tournament field and was a corner three pointer away from being eliminated in the first four.
Had Arizona State eliminated Syracuse on that shot, what would expectations for Syracuse’s 2018-19 team have been instead?
With all major contributors returning plus a bump from the additions of Hughes, Carey and Buddy Boeheim, it’d be fair to project a more secure ticket to the Big Dance. At that point, Syracuse is on the fringe of being a top-25 team which makes the projections of the Orange being a top-20 team in the country a bit of stretch.
What most failed to understand about last year’s team is that it had zero wins against KenPom’s top-25 teams before the month of March. Syracuse did come around to pick up three top-25 wins in the season’s final month, but those wins came ugly. The Orange averaged 55.6 points per game in those contests. The team rode the back of its top-five defense en route to the Sweet 16.
Yes, Syracuse should have theoretically taken a step forward this year, but there isn’t much room to improve on a team that was already one of the best defenses in the country. Add in that the team was incorporating two players into its rotation that were unfamiliar with the zone in Jalen Carey and Elijah Hughes and the team might even take a slight step back — and that’s where Syracuse is. The team is currently ranked 18th in the country in defensive efficiency.
Yes, this is hindsight analysis. It is a healthy exercise, however. Is it that surprising that Syracuse is in the position it’s in with the added perspective?
Had Syracuse not lost to Old Dominion, no one would be panicking right now. Buffalo is a tournament team regardless of whether it wins its conference. Tuesday’s loss to the Bulls wasn’t a bad one. The Orange would be riding into conference play with three non-conference losses but two of those (UConn, Oregon) would be slightly discounted due to Frank Howard’s absence.
That isn’t where Syracuse is now, though. And it isn’t just the losses, but the way the team played. Between the two most recent games, Syracuse was out-rebounded 73-56 and shot 57 percent from the free throw line on 47 attempts, shot 38 percent from the field and turned the ball over 27 times. Teams don’t win with numbers like that and they didn’t against UB and ODU.
Still, it gets worse! It isn’t just the way the team lost, but the implications on Syracuse’s tournament resume. These losses hurt the “Frank Howard Was Hurt” card that Syracuse could play if its losses to UConn and Oregon came into question. It would have been plausible that Syracuse would have gotten a pass for the losses without Howard, but these to losses hurt the legitimacy of that argument.
Syracuse’s work is cut out for it if the team is going to make the NCAA tournament. The team can finish no worse than 10-8 in conference play and will likely need to pick up flashier wins against teams at the top of the ACC. This year’s Syracuse team will need to prove that it has taken a step forward from last year if it hopes to even be in the conversation to be invited to back to the NCAAs.