When the final buzzer sounded on Friday night, the Syracuse Orange’s season was over.
That’s always hard to stomach for a team, a coaching staff and a fan base. But at least on this end, the finish felt different for 2018.
Much like 2016, when another surprising Syracuse basketball team went further than any believed, there was something calm and accepting about the loss. We didn’t want it. And the team certainly didn’t look beat on the floor during any of this year’s 40 minutes against the Duke Blue Devils in the Sweet 16. But there was a satisfaction there that we — more accurately, this team — had once again defied the odds and put the sport on notice.
Syracuse had no business scoring three straight upsets en route to an unlikely Sweet 16 bid following an equally unlikely NCAA Tournament invite. But once there, Jim Boeheim and the Orange made it their business to remind everyone they didn’t care. As fans, we did too. However, it was the team’s play that allowed us to own that narrative.
In a tournament full of surprises, SU was overshadowed by the larger accomplishments of a team like Loyola-Chicago, one of March Madness’s best underdog stories ever. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Syracuse also managed to defy all odds, even if they fell short of the Final Four (and who could blame them for doing so?).
The Orange are no plucky underdogs. No upstart program. They’re a rung below the bluebloods, consistently in the tournament conversation and staunchly beholden to the personality of its long-time coach. Yet in two of the last three years, they’ve owned the role of unwanted and unloved late addition to America’s favorite postseason. They’re not villains as much as trolls. And they’ll never truly be “outside” of the power structure of the sport — or at least are unlikely to be anytime soon.
They had no business doing so, of course, given the circumstances.
As a team, Syracuse knew that just as well as anyone. Marek Dolezaj, himself a spark of of Orange success this month, called out the challenges after the game.
“I’m so very proud of this team. Tyus (Battle), Frank (Howard), Oshae (Brissett), this team. We had seven guys. Two centers with one foot. Matt (Moyer) with one foot. And we won three games in the NCAA Tournament.”
The freshman from Slovakia had a quiet-but-productive regular season, yet from the beginning of the ACC Tournament on through the Duke game, averaged 11.2 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 61.9 percent from the floor (mostly on mid-range jumpers). He mentioned after the game he was proud of this team and happy to have been a part of what they’d accomplished. It was a feeling that permeated everyone else in the locker room as well.
Boeheim, not one to often offer outward praise, had plenty for his team:
“They’ve had an incredible end of year. I’ve never been any more proud of a team for what they’ve done in these last 10 days. To go and play in that first game and be able to get that and then to beat TCU and Michigan State, these guys have a tremendous amount of courage. Nothing fazes them.”
They’d be forgiven if something had actually fazed them during what was a whirlwind of difficult opponents all seemingly tailor-made to beat Syracuse and its vaunted zone. SU’s offense was well outside the top 100 this year, and they played at one of the slowest paces in the country (just six teams were slower). They were among the worst three-point shooting teams in a sport that’s increasingly utilizing outside shooting. And again, had a roster very much inhibited by injury.
Yet despite all of that, they won. Repeatedly. And it’s because of that lights-out defensive effort (finished ranked fourth overall in efficiency on that end of the floor) and a zone that vexed foes who weren’t entirely prepared for what it was capable of. It sure seemed like no one was entirely prepared for what Syracuse was capable of this March, and the Orange players noticed it as well.
“... I don’t think people gave us credit as a basketball team,” said Howard. “Shorthanded, making it to the Sweet 16. And the road we had to take with the extra game, with guys playing 40 minutes. That’s a good team if you ask me.”
They’re a good team if you ask us, too. Even if no one thought they should’ve (or could’ve) been there to begin with. Boeheim, the fans and the players took that on as a source of pride and a defining character trait these past few years. Maybe for the first time as a program, “our business” is finally making it this far as the bare minimum achievement in the NCAAs. It sounds odd, but Sweet 16 trips have occurred in less than half of Boeheim’s seasons. Somehow, it would be fitting that the dynamic changed on the strength of double-digit seeds.