There is an uncomfortable wind blowing into Central New York today, whipping around Orange Nation. Not only has the reality set in of no NCAA Tournament after the Selection Committee snubbed Syracuse last night, but that more egregiously this has become the new norm. We are one very gracious Selection Sunday away from three straight lonely Big Dances.
In ’15, Syracuse self-punished the program in the wake of the NCAA probe and took itself out of the postseason. But that was a convenient sacrificial lamb, a year that finished 18-13, 9-9 in the ACC and was a whole lot like this one. It was a bubble team that likely would’ve been left out anyway. In ’16, the Orange went 23-14, again 9-9 in ACC play, and lost its first league tournament game to Pitt. Most experts thought the Orange would be sitting home. Instead, SU made the most of its opportunity and rode all the way to the Final Four. And then last night happened, where SU’s disastrous early schedule (losses to UConn, Georgetown, St. John’s, BC), along with being a putrid 2-11 away from the Dome, plus once again being one-and-done in the ACC tourney, meant no bid.
Let’s face the cold, hard facts: Jim Boeheim is not as effective as he once was. In three attempts, he has yet to win a game in the ACC tourney. Could you imagine Syracuse being 0-for-3 at MSG in the old Big East tourney? Granted, this ACC is better than the old Big East… but not by much. I watched four straight days of ACC Tournament this year courtside, and one thing was abundantly clear. It was not talent which Syracuse lacked to make a run in that tournament.
No doubt Duke has a parade of top notch talent, and a pair of lottery NBA draft picks in Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. Florida State also has a pair of players that will be taken in the first round most likely in Isaac and Bacon. But those are the only two schools in the ACC that mock drafts peg as having more NBA talent than Syracuse. The Orange have one potential NBA first round pick in Tyler Lydon, just like UNC’s Justin Jackson, Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell, NC State’s Dennis Smith and Wake’s John Collins.
Syracuse landed two ESPN Top 100 kids last year including Tyus Battle, who had offers from Duke and Louisville. Tauren Thompson had an offer from Arizona. In ’15, SU had 4 ESPN Top 100 commits. Malachi Richardson had offers from Arizona and Villanova. Tyler Lydon had offers from Iowa State and Notre Dame. In ’14, the Orange landed Chris McCullough, who had offers from FSU and Kansas. The common thread? All of these programs which SU beat to recruits are better teams right now than the Orange. The issue has not been talent.
I believe Boeheim’s final years have been marked by an inefficiency in coaching. The program is reeling in top notch talent every year, a recruiting proficiency that exploded after Carmelo Anthony and the ’03 title. SU is now a land of NBA lottery picks and a parade of early departures. Yes, some of that is a development of good coaching. But watch SU closely on a regular basis and you see just how sloppy so much of its in-game structure is. Running offensive sets is a headache, execution out of timeouts is a problem, decision-making on the floor is often poor. The zone defense is still a trademark, but it often just disguises players’ inability in using more sophisticated defensive techniques. When Syracuse has found itself in holes to inferior teams it has gone in the tank, like the St. John’s and Boston College games this year. A good indicator of coaching is how the team responds in adversity. SU was a disaster this year away from home, and games like at Notre Dame showed the discrepancy in a well-coached team and a sloppy one. The Irish do not have more talent than the Orange. But they are a far more disciplined team, a much more accountable and consistent squad, and made it all the way to the ACC title game and a 5-seed in the Big Dance.
Players who commit mistakes under Boeheim often get relegated to the dog house, confidence shot, never to return. Great coaches coax the best out of players that make errors. I think Boeheim’s patience with everything (it was never abundant) has eroded even more over time, meaning he’s less likely to invest the time in truly fixing player or team problems. He fights with the media more now, he’s cranky over just about everything (including Greensboro). It’s like everything is wearing thin for him (and that’s saying something since he’s always been a curmudgeon). I think you can make the argument Boeheim is now a middle-of-the-road coach in his own conference. There are 6-7 coaches in the league that would do more with SU’s roster.
There was a time when Boeheim was one of the best in-game tacticians in the sport, and an undying work ethic that essentially willed this program into the national conversation. He was a younger man at that time, the era of the early-to-mid ’80s where he was every bit the difference-maker on the sideline as Bob Knight or Coach K. No longer. There’s a reason Duke, UNC, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State have been that much better than Syracuse for years. Those coaches are that much more effective right now. Yes, there is top tier talent coming through many of those schools. But it’s also what you do with that talent. Many blamed Syracuse’s new faces for the early problems this year, but why don’t we ask the same thing of John Calipari? He has an entirely new group of star players every single year, and somehow they consistently coalesce into winners. Coach K has embraced the one-and-done culture now, he won a title recently with it. These coaches are constantly dealing with roster turnover.
Syracuse has basically been a .500 team in the ACC the last three years, and has never won a game in the league tourney. The Orange has had talent far superior to a middle of the pack team in the conference. Simply put, SU has not gotten the most out of its players since getting to the ACC, and that goes to coaching. And last year’s fortuitous nod into the NCAA tourney and run to the Final Four covers up some of the blemishes. The coaching, specifically Jim Boeheim, must be better or living as a bubble team becomes the new normal for SU hoops.