There’s a lurking close game in the near future which will test this hypothesis.
On the final day of February, this Fizz writer accused Syracuse basketball of being a front-running team. At the time, it was dead right.
Fresh off a loss at Marquette, the Orange would go on to lose a close affair against Louisville at home, and (after an easy win over DePaul) get embarrassed in the final game of the regular season against Georgetown.
Everyone knows what happened next. Left for dead by most at the conclusion of the regular season, the Orange vastly overachieved by making it to the Big East Tournament Championship Game, and capitalized on its Big East Tourney momentum to cruise all the way to the Final Four.
So here we are. SU is somehow in Atlanta less than a month after it appeared destined for an early-round exit in both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments. What gives? How has this group actually been able to turn it around so suddenly?
Here’s what was written about the Orange back in February:
“It’s clear that when facing adversity, this year’s Orange isn’t typically up to the challenge. SU doesn’t have the composure to consistently make baskets in pressure-packed situations. When it’s go time: a time-running-out, down-by-multiple-baskets, must-score possession, Syracuse looks panicked.
Because right now, if you look at their faces during the final minutes of games, they don’t think they can win. And it’s a shame, because with the right mindset, this team still has championship potential in a college basketball season devoid of a true, shall we say, ‘front-runner’ ahead of the pack.”
Turns out SU is now close to realizing that championship potential. And more than anything else, it is indeed “belief” that the Orange players have acquired to make the run they’ve made.
Carter-Williams knew it during the Big East Tourney:
“We believe in ourselves now.”
It’s a sentiment MCW and the other players have echoed at each stop in the NCAA Tourney, as well.
Through an ultra-stifling zone defense, and an improved team-wide sense of composure, SU has journeyed to the Final Four. But exactly how different is this team from the one that lost four of five back in February?
In order to provide a complete answer, it’s worth noting these stats from my article back in February still stand strong:
- Syracuse has won only 4 times after trailing at any point in the 2nd half
- SU has won just 2 times after trailing with less that 12 minutes left (Louisville, Cincinnati)
- SU is just 1-9 when down by multiple possessions inside 4 minutes
Syracuse had to win a couple of close ones in the Big East Tournament, but the Orange wasn’t burdened with a second half deficit against Pitt or Georgetown. The outcomes of SU’s other five postseason victories were rarely in doubt. So the front-runner concern shouldn’t completely evaporate.
But there’s evidence Syracuse is no longer a front-running team:
- Syracuse didn’t panic when down 13-3 against Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament 2nd round, and ended up blowing the Pirates out.
- It survived late-game pushes by Pitt and Georgetown.
- Indiana and Marquette both made runs at the start of the 2nd half. These were nerve-racking runs for ‘Cuse supporters. But in both games at the Verizon Center, the Orange immediately countered with a run of its own, sucking the life out of its opponent. The SU players didn’t get frazzled, showed belief in each other, and placed doubt in the minds of the opposing players.
Admittedly, this Fizz staffer still not quite sold. Syracuse is playing its best basketball at the right time of the season. This has led to impressive blowout wins over teams you wouldn’t expect the Orange to blow out.
The one thing the Orange hasn’t done is prove it can consistently win tight games. And it’s highly doubtful the semifinal game and a potential title game will both be blowouts.
There’s also this from Jim Boeheim:
“We’re going to have to play better offense to win this tournament.”
The Orange has throttled opponents with record-setting defense through four tourney games. Against a scorching Michigan squad and a potential Louisville team that has played SU three times this season, defense may not be enough. Syracuse will have to elevate its level of execution on offense, especially late in games, in order to win it all.
Posted: Andrew Kanell