Here they stand again, only this time, outside the bubble club, rather than its owner.
The story entering the final game of the regular season for Syracuse has persisted every ACC basketball season since the Syracuse Orange left the Big East. Every year, the team’s finished 2-4 over its final six games, either crushing the momentum of a historic start or pulling a chair up to sit right on top of the bubble.
Now, as the calendar flips to March, that last scenario is the best-case for a Syracuse group that has already exceeded expectations. CBS’ Matt Norlander closed October generously, in his words, including Jim Boeheim’s squad in the top-100 of college basketball.
Four months later, riding the wave of injuries, Geno Thorpe’s departure, heavy minutes and winning (most) of the games it should have, along with two on the road in the top quartile, Kenpom.com still pegs Syracuse 51st in the nation. Even after a likely resume-debilitating blowout loss at the hands of Boston College.
This season tossed the lob of potential forward to 2018-19, where this entire roster likely returns after a year of figuring it out on the fly, alongside a pair of top prospects. But first, Cuse can maintain a streak it’s held since 1980-81: beating a top-25 team.
Kansas, Virginia (twice), Florida St., North Carolina and Duke all pummeled the Orange and planted them here, short of true marquee wins to show the committee a week from Sunday. Clemson arrives at the Carrier Dome today, with its most conference wins in 10 years and a trip sealed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. If there’s any hope left for SU joining them, it starts or ends here.
The Tigers, 1.5 point underdogs at the time of publish, still have plenty to play for as they visit the building its title-contending football team famously fell in back when this basketball season.
The top four teams in the conference receive a double-bye to the quarterfinals at the ACC Tournament. As it stands Clemson (11-6) is third, but Miami, Virginia Tech and N.C. State all sit at 10-7 entering their final game. The Tiger’s loss to VT makes the Hokies a tie-breaking threat, plus there are common-opponent tie-breakers if multiple teams finish 11-7.
Syracuse remains in Joe Lunardi’s final four teams out of the bracket, which at least gives the Orange a shot in the dark if they pick up a third quartile-one win along with a chance for several more wins in the ACC bracket next week.
Their seeding is far simpler than Clemson’s, Cuse will play on Tuesday in the first round no matter what, either as the 11 or 12th seed. That wouldn’t typically be the worst situation, but Cuse has lost to both of its possible opponents, Georgia Tech or Wake Forest.
Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe reasserted the Tigers with 20-point games in wins over Florida St. and Georgia Tech following three straight losses that included a dismantling at home to Duke’s rejuvenated defense (that went on to hold Cuse to 44 points). The Tigers score sporadically, flipping between efficient inside and outside shooting being its reliable source of offense on a game-to-game basis.
But DeVoe poses a sizable outside threat, between recent Pittsburgh and Wake Forest wins he shot 12-of-18 from three. He’s filled the second scoring role on the team behind Reed that Donte Grantham’s season-ending injury vacated.
Clemson scores the 180th most points in the NCAA, 11th in ACC play, but like Syracuse it boasts a top-30 scoring defense.
That defense capsized under the enormous weight of 14 threes by BC on Wednesday. Ky Bowman, Jordan Chatman and Jerome Robinson’s overwhelming shooting ripped the zone to shreds for 85 points. A 29-point showing from Tyus Battle, his best three-point shooting (5-10) display of 2018, wasn’t even close to enough.
Teams have routinely tried to exploit the three against Cuse this year to varying effects, but SU is now allowing more points than it scores in conference play, even while still maintaining the second best defense. Minutes piling, injuries nagging and one game remaining, Syracuse will at best end 2018 losing four of its last six at it has every year since 2012.
Only this time, it stands as Syracuse’s last chance of even reacquainting itself with the bubble.