The Grinch came early this year for Syracuse basketball. The Orange was thoroughly embarrassed in the Carrier Dome Wednesday night, rolling over as a mediocre-at-best St. John’s team cruised to a 93-60 obliteration.
It was the most lopsided home defeat Jim Boeheim has suffered during his four-plus decades as SU head coach. That certainly looks awful, but it’s a different ignominious feat that should have Syracuse fans truly concerned: the team now has five nonconference losses for the first time since Boeheim took over in 1976.
The presents are still wrapped under the tree, but it’s already time to look ahead to mid-March, when the Orange could be in severe danger of missing the NCAA Tournament. The early-season struggles have forced us to reckon with the possibility that a team with Final Four aspirations may not even get a ticket to the first round.
With a marquee nonconference win missing from (and a couple hideous losses included in) SU’s résumé, the Orange needs to rip through ACC play in order to lock up a March Madness bid. That’s an incredibly tall task, given the mind-numbing strength of the conference this season.
The ACC’s dominance is both good and bad for Syracuse. On one hand, SU will be taking on tough opponents in every single 2017 game (except for Boston College — thank goodness they still exist), making it difficult to rack up wins and get on a roll. On the other hand, the Orange will have abundant opportunities to grab an über-impressive win — circle the games against Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, and Louisville (twice), even though the prospect of Syracuse toppling those elite squads is laughable at this point.
Another aspect working against the Orange is that the selection committee, consciously or not, will probably place a ceiling on the amount of ACC teams that gain entry to the tournament. The NCAA record is 11, set by the Big East in 2011, and it’s difficult to imagine a conference getting more than 12. That will leave, at the very least, three teams on the outside looking in.
Right now, BC (6-6, No. 216) and Georgia Tech (6-4, No. 132) are the only two ACC schools outside of KenPom.com’s top 60; those two teams and Syracuse are the only ones with at least four losses. Wake Forest (8-3, No. 50), the one other group whose nonconference résumé is in the same zip code as the Orange’s, doesn’t have a notable win, but it also doesn’t have a notable loss — the Demon Deacons have fallen to Villanova, Xavier, and Northwestern.
St. John’s certainly qualifies as an ugly defeat, and UConn probably does, as well. At this point, it’s fair to say SU is one of the three worst teams in its league — and teams with that designation, even if they play in the best conference of all time, are hard-pressed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
It’s tough to gauge exactly how well the Orange needs to fare in ACC play, because we have no precedent — Syracuse has never floundered like this in nonconference play in the modern era. But just think back to last year, when SU needed a gift from the selection committee to sneak into the Big Dance. The Orange won the Battle 4 Atlantis, a gem on its nonconference résumé, and then went 9-9 against the ACC; that was barely enough. This year, Syracuse needs double-digit wins (and then some) in conference play to keep its dreams of another Final Four run alive.