In the 96-60 exhibition destruction of Kutztown State last night, the players sported “Unfinished Business” t-shirts. Sounds good. The Big East regular season champs and a #1 seed going into the Big Dance had frustratingly lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual runner-up Butler.
We could blame the early flame-out on a number of reasons: Losing Arinze Onuaku, lack of killer instinct by Wes Johnson, ice-cold shooting night for Andy Rautins. So, hopefully the guys still around from that loss (Scoop, K-Jo) help lead the next gen (Fab, Fair) with a purpose.
But the real lesson learned coming into this season of high expectations for Syracuse basketball has nothing to do with what transpires between the arc and the paint. It’s all about the ledger. As in the scheduling ledger.
Look at the Orange’s Big East slate: roadies at Pitt, Louisville, St. John’s, and UConn, and home-and-home series against Georgetown and Villanova.
“It’s much more difficult than we’d like to see,” Boeheim said. “I’d say that we might have the toughest conference schedule that we’ve had in a long time.”
SU can’t control what the league office decides, so The Per’fesser for decades has stuffed the non-conference schedule with softies and refused to travel outside the Dome.
Not this year. Starting with Northern Iowa in the home opener on Nov. 12, the Orange has a battering non-league slate. Michigan State, Michigan, Georgia Tech, UTEP and North Carolina State are all on the docket. The Spartans are a national title contender annually. The Wolverines, Jackets, Miners and Wolfpack have expectations of the NCAA tournament. Northern Iowa eliminated #1 Kansas in the dance last season. Hypothetically, SU could play six tournament teams this season. Out of conference. And then have to battle the best conference in America.
I’ve been covering Syracuse hoops for over a decade. This is bar far the most grueling schedule I’ve ever seen Boeheim construct. Why? Go back to the two NIT years last decade. The Orange was on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday, leaving its shaky NCAA bid up to the committee. The powers that be burned SU because of its traditionally weak non-con slate. As Boeheim builds towards the end of his career (we think), those two non-NCAA seasons hurt him worse than we realize. Competing for the NIT title amounts to a smiley face sticker for a Hall of Fame coach with three Final Fours on his resume.
Don’t also ignore how it helps sell to the most elite of recruits. The tandem of Murphkins is pulling in Top-10 classes. It’s no mistake the Orange is using its platform to market not only a powerful Big East schedule, but a barnstorming tour each season of top-tier hoops opponents and preseason tournaments. Green makes sense as well. Exposure, donations and attendance swells as you bring in better competition.
Remember the good ol’ days of Colgate, Albany, Ithaca, Marathon Oil and Upstate AAU? No more. This season will be defined by lessons learned. Coach is off to a good start.