Wednesday night’s loss for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team was excruciating, and also familiar.
The Orange looked terrible early against the N.C. State Wolfpack, managed to cut the lead to one, then spent much of the second half getting run off the floor by a team with similar talent. They lost 73-58.
Losing a game like that is far from season-ending. SU is 17-8 on the year and 8-4 in league play. There’s a very tough schedule ahead, but the Orange have one of the season’s best wins (by any team) at Duke, and opportunities to add to the résumé. Few Syracuse fans would be surprised to see this team finish the year at 2-4. Perhaps the same amount wouldn’t be shocked at 4-2. Which you believe in probably depends on what you consider the exception or the rule for this basketball program.
Because since joining the ACC, Syracuse has really been a collection of upper and lower limits, with little in between.
In 2013-14, they won 25 straight to start the season before collapsing in a heap at the end. The 2014-15 season featured wins over top-25 teams like Louisville and Notre Dame, then a postseason ban and blowouts. As you recall, the 2015-16 squad squeaked into the NCAA Tournament and then made the Final Four. The 2016-17 team won big games, but not enough of them. As the last team in the 2018 NCAAs, we were despised, yet made the Sweet 16 and tested Duke to the final minutes.
Those highs — 25-game win streaks, the victories against Duke, unexpected runs to the Final Four and Sweet 16 — have been a blast. But the lows — an excruciatingly inefficient offense, head-scratching losses, barely making the NCAA field — have been equally so. Which is the exception, and which is the rule?
Taking the postseason success out for just one second, the last five years show me four of the worst regular seasons in Jim Boeheim’s entire tenure as head coach, in terms of total wins and losses, with a perfect five-for-five surely on the way here in 2018-19. There’s the diminished recruiting capabilities (in part due to over-reaching sanctions), and the departure of Mike Hopkins to Washington.
I won’t walk us into some fantasy world where the team didn’t make the NCAAs in three of those years, and didn’t make it to the Final Four in 2016 or Sweet 16 last year. But without those latter two accomplishments, aren’t we having a very different conversation right now?
While the old narrative about Syracuse under Boeheim used to be regular season team that couldn’t get it done in the postseason, recent history has flipped that completely on its head. The Orange are now a team that got “lucky” to even be included (outsiders’ emphasis, not mine) and then managed to catch lightning in a bottle once they made it to the field... apologizing (sarcastically, of course) the whole time.
I’ll add the caveat that Boeheim deserves all of the credit in the world for a system that takes advantage of the NCAA Tournament’s unique structure, and knows how to make the in-game adjustments there to take foes by surprise for the last decade or so now.
Still, you’re not a bad fan for wondering at this point whether those teams that can make the miracle run are the exception when looking at the total body of work for Syracuse, or the rule for Boeheim’s squads. And if they’re the exception, are we okay with that?
This is no call to move on from Jim. He’s rightfully a legend and deserves to coach for as long as he wants to at Syracuse.
What this is a call for, though, is perhaps rethinking how we’re approaching this whole thing. Because the old Gregg Popovich Spurs approach of mailing it in every regular season only to cash in all of your chips during the big games and in the postseason (should you manage to get there) only works if you have elite talent. We have some great players right now, sure. But are they great enough to have the team coast for months? To some extent, luck has said yes. For how long, though?
This season could end up the breaking point if we’re not careful — or if 2016-17’s tournament miss wasn’t already. That season shows what happens when the inconsistent play is the rule.
The 2015-16 and 2017-18 campaigns showed what happens when looking like a “good enough” team often enough is the rule, and the committee wants to agree with that assessment. In a month or so, Syracuse will probably put that concept to the test again: Is a team that wins frequently on the road and beat Duke that time “good enough” as a rule? Or are those moments the exception; the norm being losses to Old Dominion, Georgia Tech, UConn, Oregon, etc?
If this season unfolds the way we think it will — NCAA Tournament or not — it’s worth seriously considering what’s ahead. Is Syracuse going to be the program that wins consistently as a rule, or wins big as an exception? And if the answer’s the latter, can we sustain that and remain successful in the long-term? I’m not so sure.
What I do know is that this team’s going to take us on yet another ride here in February. Let’s just hope we like where it comes to a stop. If not, this offseason’s going to be full of a lot of conversations no one’s all that comfortable with.