The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season ended in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals with a loss to the Duke Blue Devils. For the first time in Jim Boehiem’s tenure, the Orange finished with a losing record of 16-17 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the third time in seven years (not including 2020).
With that, the TNIAAM team gathered around for a roundtable to discuss the season, look ahead to next year and exchange ideas on what to expect from Syracuse basketball in the near future.
In the broadest terms, what were your thoughts on the 2021-22 Syracuse basketball season?
Kevin: I had modest expectations coming into the season and despite solid individual play the team still underwhelmed. Along with 2007 it was one of the most frustrating teams to watch because they lost games they should have won mostly by handing them to their opponents.
Michael: I expected more coming into this season, thinking the Orange would at least be in a position to make it back to the Tournament come February. Like Kevin said, what’s upsetting is how this team wasn’t bad because the talent wasn’t there, they just played down to worse opponents.
Szuba: Syracuse fell short of expectations this year and while many of us had the Orange in the NCAA Tournament, nobody was predicting the first losing season in roughly 50 years. This was one of the better offensive teams but the defense was historically bad. Syracuse will have to address those deficiencies and get back to what it has historically done well: stopping teams.
What worked well for Syracuse this season and what didn’t?
Kevin: When the Orange were willing to pass and move on offense they were hard to defend and fun to watch. This team had the ability to put five capable scorers on the floor and exploit their opponents’ weak link on defense. What didn’t work was the defense which was only effective when opponents missed their open 3-pt attempts. Opponents were able to get the ball into the lane at will and when they passed the ball the Syracuse defenders were often left scrambling to try and rotate.
Michael: Syracuse at least has a gameplan for next season when Jesse Edwards comes back, because the games where the offense ran through him were the best of the season. Scoring was not the issue: Buddy Buckets showed up more nights than not, Joe Girard shot much better from the arc, and Cole Swider finally came alive down the stretch. The defense just wasn’t there to match it. Too many teams picked apart the zone and caught guys lacking in transition, setting up open 3-pt shots that rarely missed.
Szuba: The offense was really good and it will be difficult to replace Buddy Boeheim’s scoring next year, but as we’ve talked about, the defense was all-time bad. The 2-3 zone was sliced and diced night in and night out, so much so that Syracuse went to a 1-1-3 zone at times. It was a welcome sight to see Syracuse try something new, but even still, this squad wasn’t going to be a good defensive team no matter what the scheme.
What were the season’s highlights and what were the lowlights?
Kevin: Every one of the Orange starters turned in dominant games during the year and I don’t remember that happening since the early 90s. Home games against Indiana and Wake Forest turned back to clock to up-tempo basketball and they were fun to watch. The lowlights were giving up 100 at home to Colgate and losing to a Georgetown squad that didn’t win a Big East game. Losing Jesse Edwards to injury was disappointing as it left us wondering what might have happened if he’d been healthy down the stretch and the team had those Q1 opportunities.
Michael: The Double-OT thriller against Indiana was the game to be at; it felt like many of the classic Syracuse games from my childhood. But then reality set in and the Orange somehow lost to a Georgetown team that finished 6-25. What’s worse? We were somehow their ONLY Power 5 win all season. If that isn’t a new low for the program, I don’t know what is. Losing Jesse was brutal too, but by then the season was already hanging by a limb anyway. It would’ve been nice to steal one more game anywhere just to keep Boeheim’s streak going, but it is what it is.
Szuba: Yeah, that double-overtime game against Indiana was the one. Honorable mention to Syracuse’s road win at Florida State and home win over Wake Forest. Even though Syracuse lost to Duke, the final two ACC Tournament games were really good. The lowlights would have to be the loss to Colgate (which aged well) and Georgetown (which did not) and the inability to close so, so many ACC games.
If you could change one aspect of the team, what would it be?
Kevin: I would have signed another guard last summer. Syracuse lost 2-3 games when they simply had no guard available off the bench. The Orange didn’t have the ability to go to effective full-court pressure when trailing and the combination of minutes played and defensive focus clearly wore down the guards in at least a couple of the losses.
Michael: Any semblance of a better bench was badly needed. So many of the losses seemed to be because the starting five had just run out of gas by the last few minutes. Even in the ACC Tournament against Duke, a tremendous effort was ultimately undone by a lack of reserve options. The great SU teams all had seven or eight dependable guys, not five and a book of prayers.
Szuba: The ability of Syracuse to retain one of its top athletes from last year. One of Kadary Richmond, Quincy Guerrier, Robert Braswell or Woody Newton could’ve really helped this team.
Does Jim Boehiem’s first losing season ultimately matter?
Kevin: It would have been a cool stat on his resume when he retires but if Syracuse bounces back next season it will be quickly forgotten by fans. The next two years are critical for this program. People can point to success in March and that’s fine, but the Orange haven’t had sustained success since 2013-14 and honestly this is a program that should be able to do better than that.
Michael: It really doesn’t hurt his reputation as a head coach too much. He’s still the second-winningest of all time, and that’s no small feat. But it does highlight a rough stretch that began as soon as the Orange had to contend with other ACC squads for recruits. At least making the dance in March should be the standard, not the achievement it has been of late.
Szuba: In the grand scheme of all of this? Not really. But it would’ve been a nice notch under Boeheim’s legacy belt to champion zero losing seasons. Also, Syracuse was close to surpassing UCLA’s record of 54 consecutive winning seasons. Syracuse’s streak ends at 51.
What do you think about next year’s team?
Kevin: More versatile but will they build an offense around Jesse Edwards? Will they play better defense? Will Boeheim go find a scorer in the transfer portal because otherwise it’s asking a lot for Benny Williams to take a big step forward on that end and/or Chris Bunch to come in and be ready right away. I think there are a lot of questions right now but the most exciting thing is that there should be depth available to match up better with different types of opponents.
Michael: I still have high hopes for Benny, but I’m not counting on him to be a consistent scorer right out of the gates next year. Get back to Jesse being the focus of the offense. It wouldn’t surprise me if Girard actually regresses simply because he’ll draw a lot more pressure than the freshmen. We’ll see what the portal has to offer and if Jim can find another Swider-type. It should be treated as a learning year, but one with options to play with.
Szuba: Next year’s team could look drastically different. The offense should take a step back without Buddy Boeheim and with five freshmen joining the fold, but the defense can’t get worse with more athleticism on the wing and a healthy Jesse Edwards anchoring the center position. I’m curious if Jim Boeheim will actually mix in some man-to-man or if that’s just chatter. And Joe Girard could slide to the shooting guard position with Symir Torrence commanding more minutes from the point. There was much to be encouraged about from Torrence’s play in the ACC Tournament.
Lastly, what are your expectations for Syracuse basketball into the near future?
Kevin: It’s time for Syracuse to get back to competing for a top four spot in the ACC and a top 25 ranking. We are beyond the sanctions impacting recruiting and the Orange should be able to land impact players out of high school or through the transfer portal. It’s time for Syracuse to make it to an ACC Tournament semi-final and be a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Michael: The greatest teams usually go out with a whimper, not a bang. Sadly, I think we’re at that point. Jim Boeheim has an incredible legacy, and we owe a ton to him for making this program what it is. That being said, I don’t see it being anywhere as noteworthy as the Big East days for a while, namely until after he retires and a new coach’s vision unfolds. Will that be Gerry McNamara? Can we lure back Mike Hopkins under the right circumstances? Until that happens, get the tapes from the glory days ready.
Szuba: Syracuse basketball can be so much more than what it has been in the last eight years and we’ve been over why the program has been where it has, beleaguered by NCAA sanctions, losing Mike Hopkins and joining a new league as part of the overhaul of the college sports landscape — one that continues to change as the SEC and Big Ten monopolize their expansion and bolster their basketball programs. That’s not to make excuses for Syracuse. That’s also not discounting the tournament runs, but it’s fair to say they have masked middling regular seasons.
Syracuse basketball is still a brand that resonates with fans across the country in March. It should be a program that’s nationally relevant almost every year, consistently ranked in the AP Top 25 three or four times every five years, competes for top five finishes in the ACC and fills that beloved cement aircraft hangar with 30,000 people a few times per year. Syracuse should have teams that make the NCAA Tournament at least seven or eight times per decade, good enough to compete for Sweet 16s in five or six of those years while one team is talented enough to break through to a Final Four and compete for a National Championship once a decade. That should be the highest vision for Syracuse basketball and it can be all of that.
What Jim Boeheim has done is nothing short of remarkable. He’s one of the best college basketball coaches of all-time, even if he won’t remembered as such nationally. He’ll be the forever legend at Syracuse. We are getting down to the final hours here. The next coach to lead Syracuse to that vision could very well be sitting on the team bench, but we won’t know that for some time even after the program hires its ninth men’s basketball coach.
What about you? What are your thoughts on some of these topics and what do you expect moving forward? Join the conversation in the comment section below.