What could be a more appropriate ending to one of the most disappointing seasons in program history than what we just witnessed? A Syracuse team that was always more talented than the results showed lost at the Dome to the 5th-best team in perhaps the worst Power 5 basketball conference. Ole Miss may have stacked 10 wins in the SEC, but that league was Kentucky’s and Kentucky’s only yet again this season. And the Rebels waltzed into the Dome and totaled 85 points, most of those on arcing three-pointers that were rarely contested.
It was the perfect end to one of the most imperfect seasons ever for SU. Jim Boeheim lamented after the game this team was never able to find defensive efficiency, which frankly is an indictment on the coaching as much as the players. It came to roost in this putrid end to the season, a meaningless exhibition game in front of a sparse crowd and a frustrated fan base.
Boeheim took blame postgame for raising expectations too high by saying this was one of his most talented teams ever. But was that not true? While maybe the depth wasn’t there because of the lingering effects of the sanctions, most coaches would walk barefoot from Solvay to Tipp Hill on Saint Patty’s Day for SU’s roster. Tyler Lydon will likely be a first round NBA draft pick. Some mock drafts point to Andrew White as being selected in the second round. Tyus Battle had offers from Duke and Louisville. Frank Howard had offers from UVA and Maryland. Taurean Thompson had an offer from Arizona. John Gillon was a senior leader who hit big shots and will live in lore for his buzzer beater over Duke. It wasn’t crazy for Boeheim to laud the potential of this team preseason.
But the group never coalesced entirely and you could never count on what type of effort you’d get from them. Was it the toe-to-toe battles with FSU, UVA and Duke as top 10 opponents? Or the quit and hide games against inferior teams like St. John’s and Boston College? I’ve written before how I thought the underlying problem this year and during the recent three-year swoon as a bubble team kept coming back to coaching. Defenders of Boehiem keep pointing to last year’s Final Four run, but seem to overlook that was a run over Dayton (7-seed), Middle Tennessee (15), Gonzaga (11) and Virginia (1). While SU certainly had a fun two weeks, it beat two mid-majors, a low-major and a conference opponent to get to the Final Four. Not exactly the most miraculous road ever. SU was the Vegas favorite in every game until the Elite 8.
Boeheim says he learned never to be optimistic publicly about a team (although it seems odd that the Cantankerous One would ever be too optimistic and that he’s learning lessons on how to handle expectations after 41 years as a head coach). But ultimately, the expectations were not unfair and the optimism was not unfounded. SU just never figured out how to reach its potential.