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Syracuse men’s basketball season defined by Elijah Hughes greatness, and poor finishes

It would’ve been easier to make a case for Hughes as ACC Player of the Year if Syracuse over-performed. They had the chance to do so. Instead, poor closing efforts put them in line with expectations.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-20 ACC standings finished with records fully reflective of everyone beating everyone. Florida State, Virginia, Duke and Louisville emerged as four teams slightly ahead of a mass of others converging around the middle.

The Syracuse Orange once had a chance to form a league of its own between the two. They instead joined the mediocre — .500, 10-10. An unremarkable finish, maybe in line with expectations, but below what this team developed into back in January.

No moment more defined these Orange than the 88-87 thriller to open 2020 against Notre Dame. Syracuse had cleaned up an uneventful non-conference stretch without a poor loss, leaving ground to build on. They built, overcoming John Mooney’s inside dominance and a nine-point deficit to lead at halftime. The Orange led eight straight games at half to open ACC play. They lost three of those games.

A 9-1 record to open ACC play may have been too much to ask for on the surface. It only required closing out Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Clemson teams that Syracuse finished better than. A final 13-7 record in-conference, instead of 10-10, would’ve placed the Orange two games above Georgia Tech and two games below Duke. That may not have reached March Madness territory. It would’ve allowed them a chance to get there in Greensboro outside of winning it all.

Instead, Quincy Guerrier’s block fell into John Mooney’s hands for a go-ahead bucket and Elijah Hughes failed to finish the follow-up attempt to tie the game. Unheralded Jalen Cone drilled threes and 6’3” Isaiah Wilkins grabbed offensive boards to disrupt the Orange’s comeback attempt against Virginia Tech at home. Back then those losses felt like lost opportunities. They ultimately became who the Orange were.

Syracuse firmly controlled both games at one point, then finished horrifically. Bourama Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj fouled out 19 times combined. SU couldn’t secure rebounds and the defense collapsed in second halves while too much leaned on Hughes offensively.

So Syracuse will play in the NIT unless they cash in on +3300 odds to win in Greensboro. The Orange face North Carolina or Virginia Tech, a team they lost badly against and another they split two close games with. Louisville awaits in round three, the team that handed Syracuse its most overwhelming defeat as they faltered into February.

It’s a shame Hughes, named All-ACC First Team following a season that will set the standard for Orange players in the 2020s. He led the ACC in scoring as an on-ball creator one year after he shined playing off Tyus Battle, two years after he sat an entire season and three years after losing minutes when coaches changed at East Carolina. Syracuse’s inability to close games turned looks away from him as a legitimate ACC Player of the Year candidate,

Jim Boeheim indicated that Hughes is leaning toward trying the NBA Draft, as evaluators continue to peak interest in the Syracuse forward (even with the “Syracuse stain”). His ability to extend what could be his final season at SU nearly fell into doubt after he fell and collided with Sidibe’s knee in the first half.

He sat the entire second half and overtime with a hood over his head, then today announced he’d be ready to go for Wednesday. A source said he’s feeling good after the incident. His sitting likely came out of an abundance of caution during a relatively meaningless game due to SU needing to win the entire tournament to reach the NCAAT.

Syracuse fell from the fifth to sixth seed with the loss; one that oddly didn’t fit in line with the Orange’s season. Going into Saturday only Virginia and Louisville matched the Orange with an ACC-low three road losses in ACC play. Duke had lost four and nearly lost to Clemson. Syracuse played better on the road all year, then collapsed in the second half against Miami.

Joseph Girard III missed a free throw, Sidibe and the zone shifted too high up on a Sam Waardenburg dunk as part of a 7-2 Miami run (yes, a scalable run in that game) which forced Girard to hit two runners that forced overtime. Once there, Boeheim and Girard missed five straight jumpers in a 69-65 loss while Hughes watched. Jim mused that his team wasn’t good at shooting after.

If that, and not fatigue or defensive adjustments on both sides, keyed a season of late collapses then we won’t watch this Syracuse team for too much longer. Be careful what you wish for. Hughes made this team relevant, steady and exciting — three things hard to match.

Hughes’ story is one of the great ones in program history, considering his inexperience to take on the load he did. Boeheim struggled doing the same this year, and he’ll likely take the burden next season if Girard doesn’t strangle those shots from him. It’s a shame Elijah won’t be rewarded with his own March Madness run as a reward, because this team had a real chance to do so in a down year for the conference.

Second guess the non-conference slate, the trip to Brooklyn, Brycen Goodine’s usage, Guerrier, Jalen Carey, the fouls, rebounding or decisions in all those games decided by a few possessions. We’ll never second-guess Hughes.