The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team and Jim Boeheim have long attracted questions, criticism and skepticism. Whether it’s the zone, the city’s weather, Boeheim’s longevity, his lone championship or the diminishing returns of recent seasons, we’re all quite used to the concerns, both real and imagined about this program.
These past five years or so have been particularly trying, as Syracuse battled through NCAA sanctions, some ugly basketball and difficult regular seasons that more often than not have left us hanging on the edge of our seats. At the center of the issues with quality of play has been Boeheim — the oldest coach in DI college basketball — who was once set to retire after a three-year swan song, only to throw out the whole idea as the date came and went.
Because while Syracuse has made both a Sweet 16 and a Final Four since 2015, they’ve also recorded four of the Boeheim’s five seasons with 14 or more losses as well. And while NCAA sanctions hurt us significantly on the recruiting front, the departure of Mike Hopkins hurt us more.
Through this entire rough patch, the Orange have continued to win more games than they’ve lost, and take home at least 20 wins more often than not. Much of that has been on the strength of the defense, which continues to lean heavily on the patented 2-3 zone. SU’s also struggled on the offensive end as a failure to modernize while leaning on isolation basketball has given us some of the most futile scoring teams in modern program history.
All of this back and forth above is to start scratching at the surface of a question none of us have ever really wanted answered: Is this the end, or another bump in the road?
Despite the struggles in recent years, there’s always been another side of the coin you could potentially point to; in particular, the wins. Syracuse may not have looked itself at all times, but there was faith that Boeheim’s talent, the quality of the roster and the coach’s ability to make key in-game adjustments (and underrated aspect of the last decade or so of his career) would pull through enough to get to the NCAA Tournament. We’d see what happened after that, as the zone allowed us to catch lightning in a bottle against the right foes.
But this year, it’s getting harder to see the way out of this — both in terms of the rest of this season, and what happens going forward.
At current, Syracuse is 4-4 to start the season. That’s a first under Boeheim, who perhaps notoriously spent much of his time at SU prepping for the rigors of conference play with easier non-conference slates. There have been select bright spots in the early parts of 2019-20. However, the fact remains that the Orange offense is questionable, the defense is maybe the worst we’ve seen in some time (though still manages to be ranked 45th on KenPom) and the team lacks for adjustments as opponents find theirs to power second-half surges.
Syracuse is 0-4 against power conference foes this year, and a possible loss to Georgia Tech later this week could make that 0-5. A win over the Yellow Jackets would inspire some hope, sure. Though how much? And for how long with Georgetown and the rest of conference play right on the horizon?
Going into 2019-20, we knew there would be growing pains as Syracuse replaced much of last year’s scoring and its best defenders. We knew that relying on threes and freshmen could yield some tough results here and there. And we knew that while the most recent recruits were quality players, there wasn’t necessarily a standout star among them, save maybe Elijah Hughes — himself a transfer from ECU.
What we didn’t know was that the most glaring issues from last year would remain as well. A defense once known for its ability to shut down three-point shooting getting entirely lit up from beyond the arc. A coach whose primary reaction to negative results is increasingly a shrug. And a lack of adjustments that are actively removing Syracuse from games they’d otherwise be in, if just for making some tweaks.
Last season, I’d argue was one of Boeheim’s worst as head coach in my memory; not for the losses, but for the actual coaching and adjustments and gameplans put together. There were exceptions, of course. Yet, overall, it still seemed like a fairly static approach.
You can coach up talent to be greater than its individual parts. And you can add elite players to help make up for coaching deficiencies or a lack of talent elsewhere on the roster. Doing neither doesn’t work for any Power Five team. It especially doesn’t for Syracuse, which is largely defined as a program by one man.
This is not a call for Syracuse to move on from Boeheim, or for the Hall of Fame coach to move on from SU, either. We all know he’s not going anywhere, regardless of what happens, as long as Buddy’s on campus (save for a title, as unlikely as that seems at this very moment). It is a call for a more open conversation, though, about what’s working and what isn’t. And most importantly: what’s next?
As a fan base, Syracuse hasn’t really asked those questions for four decades and change. If it were up to us, we’d probably avoid them for decades more. But caring about someone or something doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge its faults — especially if doing so can help make some adjustments before its too late.