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Syracuse men’s basketball: The peaks and perils of living dangerously

That was fun for a bit, even if if didn’t have any right to be.

Syracuse v Houston Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team’s season came to a close on Saturday night, dropping a 62-46 game to a very good Houston Cougars squad in the Sweet 16.

Like every Syracuse fan, I was disappointed at the result. But like most, that disappointment was balanced by the fact that a) Houston was simply better start to finish, and b) the Orange were already playing with house money. Or gravy as this group would probably prefer.

That feeling’s been incredibly common for Orange observers in recent seasons. From 2015-16 through this year, Syracuse has gone 121-81 — a good but not great record by this program’s standards. They’ve made four out of a possible five NCAA Tournament in that stretch, earning a double-digit seed in three of those. And... they’ve managed to go 9-4 in those trips, including two Sweet 16 trips and a Final Four bid.

Due to a variety of different reasons, Syracuse men’s basketball has most certainly been living dangerously in recent times. There have been pluses to that — the now-accepted fact that they’ll outplay their seed in a wild postseason run for a bit. But the other side of that coin is that it gets harder to garner excitement for a regular season performance that ultimately “doesn’t matter” when it can be completely nullified (in a good way) by once again confusing teams with the zone for a couple rounds.

More dangerous still is what it all means for the program, both now and in the long-term. I ultimately don’t know, nor does anyone else. Have we been knocked down a peg because we’re regularly underdogs in the postseason now, with a roster devoid of top-level talent the way top ACC peers are? Is the fact that we’re underdogs but winning games once we’re in the field anyway enough to wash away the concerns?

If we haven’t been knocked down a peg, then what truly matters for this program anymore? The regular season clearly doesn’t, based on the comparison recent tournament results vs. regular season outcomes (in both directions). The recruiting issues are issues, yes. But it’s not as if the Orange were a fixture beyond the Sweet 16 when they had better players on the roster.

You could also argue that the best and most crucial player to SU’s success this season was not the single top-100 guy, or the player or two that seem destined to be NBA picks at some point in the near future. It was the three-star son of the head coach.

Syracuse v Houston Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As both a fan and someone that writes about this program, it’s a weird time to follow Syracuse. That’s not a complaint at all. It’s more just an observation that while they were never easy to contextualize, that task has only become harder of late. Syracuse men’s basketball has found a way to exist in a gray area between wins and losses that I’d argue shouldn’t be possible in sports — which is ultimately wins and losses.

Back in early February, I wrote a piece entitled “This Wasn’t Syracuse Men’s Basketball’s Season,” where I spelled out why things had gone awry for the Orange in 2020-21, and related them to the greater issues for the program over the last five or six seasons, and into the future too. In the time since that piece, SU went 8-4, including the aforementioned Sweet 16 run.

At first glance, that article may look reactionary. But on a reread, it wasn’t wrong then and isn’t wrong now. Maybe the title’s off, sure. Yet there were things that clearly weren’t working for Syracuse at the time it was written. Then over time, they were corrected to an extent, which helped spur this late-season run.

That’s thrilling. And frustrating. it’s the epitome of this boom-or-bust period for Syracuse that leaves more questions than answers at the end of every season. Which team was the real Orange the whole time: the one we saw play inconsistent basketball for about three months, or the one that looked far better for a seven-game stretch in March? And does that March run landing with a thud change the perception again, or is the fact that it was all gravy at that point negate further critiques?

This offseason promises to be a wild one across college basketball, and we’ll probably be living “dangerously” once again there? How many players could the Orange lose to an open transfer market and possible NBA Draft decisions? How much better can the remaining pieces on this roster get? How many additions can Syracuse make to mitigate losses? And most importantly for Jim Boeheim’s purposes: Can they figure out the zone quickly enough to make the difference needed?

We’ll get those answers in due time, but it’s unlikely we’re able to get to the bottom of where exactly Syracuse is headed in the big scheme just yet. That’s potentially fine — especially if you want to live in the moment with the Orange. Enjoying the moment has its advantages, and nothing here is meant to douse cold water on the excitement of the unexpected happening in March.

But at some point, the bill could come due for whatever this stretch has been. Whether it’s staving off irrelevancy or a short bump in the road before another uptick depends on your perspective, and probably dictates whether or not there’s anything to “pay for” here, too.

This was fun, even if it had no right to be. One way or another, though, we’re going to stop saying that about every Syracuse season soon.