As we know it, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season ended abruptly in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last Thursday to Baylor. Immediately after the game you probably felt disappointed. If you thought about it further, you might have even felt a little cheated.
The 2018-19 Syracuse team was supposed to be good. The Orange came into the preseason as the No. 16 team in the country with all five starters back from a Sweet 16 run in 2018. Jim Boeheim added scoring and depth with a newly eligible transfer, top-40 recruit and even brought in his own kin for what should have been a solid team worthy of competing for a National Championship.
Instead of that Syracuse once again rolled out an average offense, piled on early losses in the non-conference, by and large flirted with ACC mediocrity and bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round. Syracuse finished the season with a 20-14 record, as many losses as 2017-18 and three less wins.
I don’t want to get into why Syracuse wasn’t as good as it was supposed to be this year. I think we can all generally understand why that is. Rather, I want to talk about how this season will be remembered. When we talk about Syracuse basketball, we always seem to make references to past players, past teams and past seasons. So how will this one be remembered?
For me, depends on expectations. 1988 was crushing. Preseason #1, off an epic title game loss, LOADED team. Second round loss to Rhode Island. I judge everything against that. Disappointing? Yes. But I can think of other seasons where I was more crest fallen. But that’s just me— Frankie Saraceno (@frankiesaraceno) March 22, 2019
Everybody will always have their own perspective on these sorts of things. It’s what makes them worthy of conversation. If we’re talking about the 2018-19 season, we’ll probably do so through the lens of disappointment.
But it won’t quite be a let down in a “what if?” kind of way like the 2009-10 and 2011-12 seasons were when Syracuse lost Arinze Onuaku and Fab Melo just before the NCAA Tournament. There was more of a somber feel to the former and more of an angry feel to the latter. But in both instances, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that Syracuse could have had its chance at a national title in either of those years.
While we can play the what if game and wonder what would happen had Frank Howard been healthy in the preseason or available in the post-season, I don’t think any of us realistically had Syracuse going to the Final Four in 2019 after what we’d seen in the regular season.
The early tournament loss was displeasing, but not in the same way that the 2016-17 season was when the Orange missed the tournament. As the losses piled up that season and the fan base grew frustrated, at least fans could understand that it took the two graduate transfers a while to acclimate to the 2-3 zone and that Syracuse struggled to find an identity with guys in new roles.
This season was frustrating in that it felt like Syracuse had the pieces, but just never put them all together. With NCAA sanctions in the rearview and a full scholarship allotment restored, this was supposed to be the season that Syracuse returned to form. With that, fans are probably a little incredulous too along with disheartened.
Maybe that state of incredulity is due to things still being fresh, but as time passes I have a feeling that Syracuse fans will look back and say, “I still can’t believe that 2019 team only won 20 games and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.”
Disappointment happens from time to time and perhaps can even be a good thing if we take the time to recalibrate our expectations. This season was possibly just reminding us that tournament runs aren’t guaranteed and Syracuse isn’t just going to limp into the big dance as a high seed and waltz into the second weekend like it has the last two times.
Perhaps this also shines a light of appreciation on just how difficult and impressive it was for Syracuse to get to the Final Four in 2016 and Sweet 16 in 2018 as double-digit seeds in the immediate wake of an NCAA investigation.
That doesn’t take away from how the 2018-19 feels like a disappointment. If we’re being honest, it still feels like it shouldn’t be over or have ended the way it did. It all feels rather unfinished but it is indeed over and all that’s left to do is to look toward next season.