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Syracuse men’s basketball’s road to the NCAA Tournament just got tougher

Not the worst game to lose, but the Orange have their work cut out for them.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you’re used to the recent dynamic for Syracuse Orange men’s basketball. They look alright out of the gate, get smacked in a non-conference game, things look shaky for a bit and then stabilize at some point in February. You start convincing yourself they’re an NCAA Tournament bubble team, and the numbers begin to bear that out as well.

And then, one thing makes you doubt SU’s case all over again. For 2020-21, that thing winds up being Monday night’s road loss to the Duke Blue Devils. Normally, a loss at Cameron Indoor wouldn’t spell doom — and it doesn’t completely here. But given Duke’s own bubble status at the moment, the defeat takes on a little extra weight for Syracuse.

The Orange now sit at 13-7 (7-6 in ACC play). They’re 54th in NET ranking. Just 2-6 on the road. And are now 0-5 in Quad 1 games — plus a combined 3-6 against Quad 1 and 2 teams. They’ll get at least one more opportunity to nab that elusive Quad 1, with a road game at Georgia Tech (49th) coming up on Saturday. But the lost opportunity on the road vs. Duke now makes it essential to win out vs. the Yellow Jackets and North Carolina (33rd). And that’s before assuming a game is added against a team like Clemson before the ACC Tournament.

And really, winning the final two scheduled games still only gets Syracuse to 15-7 (9-6 in league play) and a NET rating somewhere around 47-50. It’ll mean one Quad 1 win, and then another Quad 2. That helps, pushing their record to 4-7 against those top two groups, but it’s still not the sort of thing that elevates Syracuse beyond a bubble team that needs things to pick up a couple wins in the conference tournament in order to make the field, with or without a possible win over Clemson beforehand, should it be added.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Clemson Andersen Independent Mail-USA TODAY NETWORK

A look at Bracket Matrix shows Syracuse on the outside looking in at the moment, and the Duke loss not only fails to elevate the Orange into the field, but also helps Duke’s once-floundering case for inclusion. Viewing Bracket Matrix as a ranked order of teams, Syracuse is among the “first four out” along with Wichita State, Stanford and Saint Louis. Richmond, Duke, Georgia Tech and Utah State would be considered the “next four out” as of Tuesday morning.

Is there good news for Syracuse? Wichita State has limited opportunities to play their way in before the league tournament (and even there, options are minimal). It’s also possible that the Billikens or Spiders knock the other down a peg in the upcoming game between them. But Stanford has a road game at USC and home date this week against Oregon. Beating the Ducks but losing to the Trojans doesn’t provide much of a lift, though the opposite arrangement would, as USC’s currently 14th in NET. Winning both games (and another vs. Oregon State) would certainly vault the Card over ‘Cuse.

Duke and Georgia Tech have opportunities to jump over SU from the group below, and Duke already completed a big part of that with a win over the Orange.

Looking up at those currently included in the field, St. Bonaventure, Minnesota, Colorado State and UConn are the last four in. While the Bonnies and Rams don’t have a lot of options to pick up bigger wins, Minnesota and UConn do given the strength of their respective conferences. For Syracuse to make the field, they have to not only put together a better end-of-season stretch than the group around them right now, but also hope they can do enough to surpass a team or two in that “last four in” group. That’s... difficult, and impossible before the ACC Tournament right now.

At current, SU could finish anywhere between fourth and 12th in the ACC. And while we don’t want to lose, the more games the Orange can get, the more likely they’ll get at least one matchup with a Quad 1 team. Finding those games — let alone victories — has been tough in the conference this season given the struggles of top programs. But at least at a neutral site, the math becomes a little easier.

In Greensboro, there could be as many as seven teams that would count as Quad 1 wins, though the Orange also need to get matched up with those teams first. If they can go 2-0 here down the stretch, they may only need a win or two in the league tournament to make the NCAAs, depending on what happens elsewhere. But at 1-1 or worse, they’ll need to win the whole thing, or at least get to the ACC title game.

Even given our recent life on the bubble, this is less than ideal and casts some real doubt on an NCAA Tournament trip right now.