Before last Saturday’s win at Virginia, there wasn’t much to celebrate about the Syracuse men’s basketball team this season. A lack of talent, especially on defense, was revealed in early-season blowout losses, and a lack of experience necessary to close games shown in home defeats to Notre Dame and Virginia by a combined five points. For a fanbase so accustomed to winning seasons (an active NCAA record of 49) and NCAA Tournament appearances, a mediocre Orange squad hovering close to .500 caused many to lose interest. Calls for Boeheim to retire or even be fired were at their loudest yet. An NIT bid was the expectation. It still is.
But Saturday’s road win over the #18 Virginia Cavaliers still reflects a steady improvement for an inexperienced team. And as our own Kevin Wall wrote, it was also characteristic of Syracuse — especially in the seasons since 2015. Often, SU’s biggest wins have followed season low points, in the process preventing Orange fans from giving up and producing a spark for the team going forward.
On Jan. 9, 2016, Syracuse was 10-7 after a loss to #6 North Carolina. But three games later, the Orange beat #20 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium as part of an 8-1 midseason surge that put the Orange back in the NCAA Tournament picture. Despite losing five of their last six games, they still earned a 10-seed and made the Final Four.
The 2016-17 season saw an even deeper hole for the Orange. After losing at #15 Notre Dame on Jan. 21, the Orange sat at 11-9 with only one quality win. But a week later, the Orange upset #6 Florida State at the Carrier Dome as part of a five-game winning streak that also included a home win over #9 Virginia. Later, they beat #10 Duke in Syracuse. The Orange ended up being the first team left out of the NCAA Tournament that year, but weren’t even in the conversation before the turnaround.
The Orange’s NCAA Tournament hopes appeared dead much later in the 2017-18 season. Following a three-game skid ending in a Feb. 28 loss at Boston College, the Orange were 18-12 and without a signature win. It seemed the bubble had burst. This blog thought that SU’s bubble had burst. But in the regular season finale, SU beat #18 Clemson with its elite defense. An ACC Tournament win against Wake Forest was enough for the Orange to receive the last at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, which they parlayed into a Sweet 16 run.
Last year, Syracuse dropped to 11-5 after a Jan. 12 home defeat by double digits to Georgia Tech, who eventually finished the season with a losing record. SU was dominated on both sides of the ball against the Yellow Jackets. But just two days later, out of nowhere, the Orange upset #1 Duke at Cameron Indoor in an overtime classic. The Orange didn’t display any consistency the rest of the season, but the win over the Blue Devils gave SU fans a sense of hope for the rest of the season, even though the team never reached that potential again.
All it took was a spurt of 20 points in a five-minute overtime period, and here we are, many of us a little more optimistic. Sure, Virginia lost to Boston College earlier last week, the Hoos are an offensive mess, and SU is still more likely to make the NIT with just two power conference wins and a struggling defense. But don’t discount the impact of a road win against a ranked opponent for a young team, especially one that looked dreadful at home to the same opponent at the start of the season. Like in past years, all it takes is a signature win to revive both fans and team and make the season interesting (and stressful) again.