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Syracuse men’s basketball: What does ‘almost’ get us?

The Orange are in about as dire a spot as we’ve seen under Jim Boeheim. Yet are also close to being in much better shape.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Syracuse Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As the final buzzer sounded on yet another brutal Syracuse Orange men’s basketball loss on Wednesday night, there were two schools of thought you could immediately jump to:

The first is around the fact that Syracuse is now 7-7, off to their worst start under Jim Boeheim, and even in a hapless ACC this year, they still have very little chance at making the NCAA Tournament barring some sort of unforeseen sprint through the remainder of the schedule. Losing again by any score just adds more insult to injury on this campaign. But yet another late loss just hammers home what’s wrong with this year’s squad.

On the other hand, there’s the fact that it was yet another narrow Syracuse loss, in a season featuring several of them. While Syracuse has lost three of the last five games, all of those defeats were products of coming undone in the final minutes. That doesn’t mean this is a decidedly good Orange team. Yet, it’s also an Orange team that could pretty easily be 10-4 with a couple road wins over Georgetown and Miami on the resume.

Again, that’s not a “great” Syracuse team. But in a down year for the ACC, holding 10 wins, several road victories and some solid wins over the likes of Florida State and Indiana, SU would have a very different — and more appealing — case for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field.

But that’s all a hypothetical; an exploration of what’s almost feasible for Syracuse, but isn’t because of late-game struggles that don’t appear to be vanishing any time soon.

So what does that get us at this point? Sadly, it’s nothing much, save the thought of what could be. As SU fans, we’re certainly familiar with the idea, especially following the football season we just wrapped up. Yet, it hurts just the same. This team is flawed. They’re also littered with individual talent that’s far better than the 7-7 record would indicate. How exactly did we get to this point?

Of course, we know. A glut of transfers, recruiting misses and some individual parts that don’t quite fit make for a tough situation for any program. However, this one runs into particular problems when it comes to a lack of cohesion due to the nature of the zone and how essential it is to the core of this team’s identity.

Now, you can change the zone here and there, and Jim Boeheim has during this season. But if you don’t have the pieces in place to run an effective 2-3 zone — or a zone at all — there needs to be another lever to pull. That doesn’t necessarily mean man-to-man defense. And I’m not doubting that Boeheim has pulled levers this year. There are also just so many levers, and this roster’s make-up further limits what you can actually do with the group of players. There are only so many amalgamations, after all. We’ve used at least a few already this year.

The focus on individual parts of this team isn’t even derogatory. It’s the main draw of this team. The Orange currently have their best offensive center in over half-a-decade in Jesse Edwards. Joe Girard’s vastly improved. Buddy Boeheim’s rounding back into form. Jimmy Boeheim’s played better than we might have thought he would.

All of that is to discuss how we get to “almost.” These are quality individual parts who would all be celebrated aspects of better Syracuse teams — and even a better version of this team where they pick up those three narrow wins discussed earlier. But because of the understandable limitations of their individual skills, it creates issues that are tough to overcome, and increasingly simpler for opponents to exploit.

And even then, they’re still pretty close to winning those games. Which counts for nothing tangible, even if it’s worth mentioning.

There’s still time for this season to round into something more than a .500-level slog, but time is also quickly running out there. Removing thoughts around an NCAA Tournament trip, the easier ask right now is to just win the winnable games and figure out the rest. This team has the pieces to be more than just “good enough” to be involved in games late. They can win some of them, even if not all of them, en route to an NIT invite.

Is that enough for us? Can it be? Should it be? No matter the answer, we’ll figure it out soon enough.