There’s plenty of “what if” throughout Syracuse Orange sports history, as you’re certainly aware of. Winning one national championship each in football and men’s basketball will do that to you, even if plenty of the other teams in question didn’t even play for a title.
When we’re talking about the Orange men’s basketball program, it’s easy to focus in on the “near-misses” like like 1987 and 2013, or fellow Final Four squads in 1975, 1996 and 2016. Yet, those teams DID have a chance to win it all, even if they didn’t..
This week, while talking about Syracuse’s best teams not to win a national title, we tried to focus on those didn’t get a chance to, as those are really the more interesting stories than “imagine if Keith (EFFING) Smart didn’t hit that shot?”
Kevin already touched on the 1988-89 team and how they were stopped short by Illinois in the Elite 8. Today and tomorrow we’ll be digging into more recent teams, and the heartbreak that followed their respective NCAA Tournament losses.
First up, it’s the 2010 team.
After losing three of the most important players (Johnny Flynn, Eric Devendorf, Paul Harris) from the 2008-9 team, expectations weren’t too high for Syracuse heading into 2009-10. We thought Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson could progress. The younger guys like Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche and James Southerland seemed interesting. We knew Andy Rautins could shoot. And we needed some additional consistency from Scoop Jardine.
What we didn’t necessarily know was how damn good Iowa State transfer Wes Johnson would be.
The Orange were unranked to start that season, and even lost to LeMoyne in preseason. That may have tempered expectations a bit, but then the real games began. After two warm-ups against Albany and Robert Morris, SU headed down to Madison Square Garden where they blew past No. 13 Cal — before they could get right back in this — and then beat No. 6 North Carolina by double digits.
By late November, Syracuse was a top-10 team. They won 13 straight before suffering loss No. 1 to Pitt. It was one of just three losses for the Orange prior to the Big East Tournament, and they wouldn’t suffer the next one ‘til a Valentine’s Day loss to Louisville. SU would be knocked off by the Cards again to close the regular season, though this time, ‘Cuse was the country’s top-ranked team.
Still, at 28-3, it was hard not to like Syracuse’s chances to win it all. They were a projected top-seed in the NCAAs and had a double-bye as the Big East regular season champ (I bought a shirt, admittedly). Even a loss in the Big East quarterfinals to a top-25 Georgetown squad wouldn’t have really harmed us... or so we thought.
Syracuse did lose to Georgetown, but more importantly, they lost Onuaku — who’d averaged 10.5 points and 7.2 rebounds on the year, along with a little over a block per game. Those numbers aren’t necessarily eye-popping, but they made a huge difference for the Orange, who were a pretty long team and killed opponents with size and speed on both ends. Keeping teams out of the paint made life hell for anyone without a seven-footer, and back then, teams weren’t just littered with sharpshooters like they are now.
We didn’t know if Onuaku would miss the NCAAs until after the Orange already had a one-seed in hand, but the path still seemed feasible to take home a title without him. SU buried Vermont in the first round, then was barely tested by Gonzaga in round two. Another mid-major awaited in the Sweet 16, in the form of plucky Butler.
You know the rest.
Syracuse lost that game by a 63-59 score, and the Bulldogs wound up nearly winning the national title against Duke a couple weeks later. If you look at Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS), the Blue Devils were the best team in the country that year, followed by Kansas. But in third was that 30-5 Orange squad that would’ve potentially beaten Kansas State in the Elite Eight that year and made it to the Final Four.
The pace at which I was drinking beers that evening increased as each minute ticked by in the second half of the Butler loss. As a senior in college, it felt fitting that the suffering of my first two seasons on campus were repaid with a championship. Instead, it ended with one of the best Syracuse teams ever losing to Butler, with the rest of that year’s senior class and me drowning our sorrows at Chuck’s ‘til last call.
Admittedly, I’ll always hate Butler for that. And I’ll always feel gutted about what could’ve been after what had been a really magical regular season for the Orange. That Duke team was fine, but Syracuse could’ve beaten them. Like you, I still think they would have had Onuaku been healthy for the NCAAs.