In hindsight, we probably should have seen this coming.
This year’s iteration of Syracuse men’s basketball was always far too talented to remain in the dregs of the ACC. Grad transfers Andrew White III and John Gillon accompanied a solid incoming freshman class, joining forces with Tyler Lydon, one of the nation’s most promising returning players. Before the season began, Jim Boeheim called it “the best team we’ve had in a long time.”
That proclamation seemed downright delusional as the season progressed; the Orange racked up bad loss after bad loss, and when SU opened ACC play with a loss to the league’s laughingstock after a putrid non-conference performance, it felt like the team’s NCAA Tournament chances had all but swirled down the toilet. Its loss at Notre Dame dropped Syracuse to 11-9 (0-7 away from the Carrier Dome); that’s NIT bubble territory.
Now, exactly two weeks later, the Orange may have a better than 50 percent chance of going to the Big Dance. Boeheim’s bunch has rattled off four consecutive wins, and they’ve been arguably SU’s most impressive victories of the campaign. First, the ‘Cuse demonstrated a newfound ability to hang on down the stretch against a good team, outlasting Wake Forest, 81-76.
Next, the Orange picked up its first win over a ranked opponent when it toppled No. 6 Florida State, and added a road victory to its résumé a few days later at NC State. Then, on Saturday afternoon, Syracuse’s season crescendoed to a peak: it stunned No. 9 Virginia, 66-62 (sound eerily familiar?), offering fans another glimmer of hope and reigniting its March Madness chances. The Cavaliers are even better than that ranking suggests — they’re the second-best team in the nation, according to KenPom.com.
Syracuse is 7-4 in ACC play, with an overall record of 15-9. We can use last year as a barometer to gauge what the Orange needs to do in order to punch a ticket to the Tournament. SU dropped five of its last six games (including one in the first round of the ACC Tournament against Pittsburgh) and entered Selection Sunday at 19-13 (9-9 in conference). So, Syracuse can play at an average level, lose early in the ACC Tournament, and finish with a nearly identical record as last year — but a much different résumé.
In 2015-16, the Orange’s most impressive win came at Cameron Indoor Stadium, which likely carried more weight than Wednesday’s victory over UVA. Last year’s team also fell to Wisconsin, Georgetown, and St. John’s — but those were SU’s only losses to non-conference foes, and Syracuse also knocked off two solid opponents, Texas A&M and UConn, in the Battle 4 Atlantis. If this year’s Orange ends up with 13 losses, its Tournament case will probably be weaker than it was last season, when SU barely snuck into the field of 68.
That being said, there’s reason to believe that Syracuse can roll through the rest of its schedule with only one or two more losses. Two showdowns with Louisville (ranked third in KenPom) and one with a suddenly red-hot Duke loom large, but the Orange is playing well enough to beat any team in the nation.
The bottom line is this: SU fans now have a reason — beyond blind hope — to believe their team will make the Tournament. Considering where the squad stood a few weeks ago, that’s amazing.