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Best Syracuse teams not to win a National Title: 1988-89 Men’s Basketball

This team had talent and opportunity but came up just short in a classic game

University of Syracuse Orangemen Photo by Syracuse/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

This week across SB Nation, team sites are looking at some of the best squads in school history not to win a national title. Today we look at the 1988-89 Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team. The team was 30-8 overall (10-6 in the Big East) and ranks as the 2nd best Orange team according to Sport Reference’s rating system trailing slighlty behind the 1987-88 team.

The 88-89 team was returning four starters from a squad which was knocked out by the Rhode Island Rams in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. Sherman Douglas, Matt Roe, Stevie Thompson and Derrick Coleman were joined by newcomers Billy Owens and Dave Johnson. It was a short bench that season for Jim Boeheim as Johnson and Herm Harried were the only reserves to average more than 10 minutes per game. Douglas and Thompson led the scoring for the team averaging over 18 points per game while Coleman put up 16.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.

The Orange shot 54% from the field on their way to averaging 89.7 points on the season. Each of the starters shot over 50% on two-point field goal attempts over the season with Roe’s 51.6% the lowest total among the group. Somehow this team only shot 61% from the foul line with none of the starters over 70%- the late 80s is probably the most #FreeThrowsMatter era in Syracuse history.

Syracuse University Orange Men’s Basketball

Syracuse started the season ranked 8th in the pre-season poll and after winning their opening 12 games they had moved up to #3. Syracuse’s first loss of the season came against the Pittsburgh Panthers on January 4th. A three-game road losing streak saw the Orange sitting at 1-4 in the Big East and I can only imagine what the commenters on Bill Hurley is a Tremendous Illusionist were saying at that time.

The Orange responded with a seven-game winning streak before losing a road game to the Georgetown Hoyas. Syracuse closed the Big East regular season by winning four of their final five games including the home finale over Georgetown. That was the game where a Syracuse fan threw an orange off the backboard while the Hoyas were at the foul line which I’m sure didn’t even cause Jim Boeheim to frown with concern. It also featured a big Syracuse comeback fueled by a full-court press which turned into a half-court trap out of the 2-3 zone.

The Hoyas got revenge in the Big East Tournament Championship game and Syracuse was awarded the #2 seed in the Midwest Region. After a 104-81 win over the Bucknell Bison, the Orange stymied the Colorado State Rams 65-50 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Syracuse took down the #3 seed Missouri Tigers 83-80 inside the Metrodome in Minneapolos behind Douglas and Owens who combined for 52 points 11 rebounds and 9 assists. That put the Orange into the Midwest Regional final against the top seeded Illinois Fighting Illini. The Illini were led by Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson but Syracuse was able to get out to a 46-39 lead at halftime.

In the second half Illinois blistered the nets to the tune of 50 points as they rallied for the 89-86 victory. The Illini shot 61% from the field for the game and even when they did miss their 18 offensive rebounds gave them plenty of additional opportunities. Kenny Battle led them with 28 points on 12 for 17 shooting while Anderson had 24 points and 16 rebounds.

Owens led Syracuse with 22 points and 7 rebounds while Coleman had 17 and 10. Douglas and Owens were named to the All-Midwest Region team as the Illini advanced to the Final Four where they lost by two to the eventual National Champion Michigan Wolverines.

Other Syracuse teams had better records or higher in-season rankings but not many have had the lead at halftime in the Elite Eight. Illinois was the only top seed to reach the 1989 Final Four so had the Orange held on in Minneapolis they would have had a good shot at winning it all. That’s why they’re included on our list even if the previous team rated a bit higher on the Sports Reference scale. To win the National Title you need talent and opportunity and this Orange team had the best opportunity of any of the non Final Four squads (and a better title chance than even some of those Final Four teams did).

This era of Syracuse Basketball wasn’t far from multiple titles and the opportunity to change the narrative around the program but one has to wonder if Jim Boeheim would have resisted the NBA’s overtures if he had a couple of rings in hand.....