It’s no secret that a team’s talent level is an indicator of its capacity for success. While there have been instances where star-studded rosters have fallen short of expectations, or teams lacking such players have gone farther than they “should have,” it’s nearly impossible to win without a certain degree of skill in addition to that oh-so-critical team chemistry.
In college basketball, a team’s supposed talent level is commonly associated with its players’ national rankings from high school. Although this perspective doesn’t take into account an underrated player’s development, or the failure of a heralded high school recruit to adjust to the college game, the teams that cut down the nets in April are often the ones that acquire the best talent.
On a related note, ever since the first high school seniors were recognized as McDonald’s All-Americans (the highest designation) in 1977, just two teams in men’s college basketball have won the national championship without one: the Maryland Terrapins in 2002, and the Connecticut Huskies in 2014. The rest have all had at least one of the nation’s most coveted recruits.
In Syracuse Orange program history, 20 McDonald’s All-Americans have gone on to play for legendary coach Jim Boeheim, and there is a direct correlation to postseason success. Each of the seven times the Orange/Orangemen have advanced to the Elite Eight or further since 1977, the team has featured at least one former McDonald’s All-American. That list:
- 1987 (Derrick Coleman, Stephen Thompson)
- 1989 (Coleman, Thompson, Billy Owens)
- 1996 (John Wallace)
- 2003 (Carmelo Anthony)
- 2012 (Fab Melo, Rakeem Christmas, Michael Carter-Williams)
- 2013 (Christmas, Carter-Williams, DaJuan Coleman)
- 2016 (Coleman, Malachi Richardson).
Syracuse has also fielded 22 teams with McDonald’s All-American-level talent that have failed to translate elite skill into an Elite Eight appearance, although some were derailed by injuries. Among the most notable McDonald’s All-Americans to fail to make it beyond the Sweet 16: Pearl Washington, Conrad McRae, Adrian Autry, Eric Devendorf and Jonny Flynn (along with some others).
Additionally, Syracuse has finished the season with a Sweet 16 trip
11 six different times since 1977 without a former McDAA on its roster, with each defeat coming by an average of nine points. Those years: 1979, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2010 and 2018. (Ed. note: this corrects an earlier version of the article which indicated Syracuse made 11 different trips to the Sweet 16 without a McDonald’s All-American)
This past season’s squad, with only one former ESPN top-50 recruit in Tyus Battle, ended with a loss by just four points to a Duke Blue Devils team loaded with six former McDAAs. It proves that an improvement in postseason success without attracting the most elite recruits is possible. McDAA player DaJuan Coleman was on the 2016-17 squad and SU failed to make the NCAAs that year (obvious caveat for Coleman’s health status).
Still, one could argue that Syracuse’s historical inability to advance to the national quarterfinals without a “burger boy” is a less-than-positive omen for next winter’s Syracuse team, which recently lost a commitment from 2018 McDAA recruit Darius Bazley (who’s headed to the G League instead). If the 2018-19 Orange — which bring a great deal of experience back with or without Battle — are going to ensure an even better finish than last year’s results, they’ll have to break a trend that goes back four decades.