Death, taxes, and Syracuse winning games as a double-digit seed. You can set your watch to it. Subpar regular seasons. Middling seeding in the ACC Tournament. A restless night on the bubble. A double-digit seed. An inspired run through the NCAA Tournament. It’s happened so often we’ve come to expect it. But why? How did Syracuse (again) look dead in January and February, only to come alive in March and still be dancing into the Sweet 16?
2016: 23-14 (9-9). 9-seed in ACC. Loss to PITT. 10-seed in NCAA. Final Four.
- Wins over Dayton (7), Middle Tennessee State (15), Gonzaga (11), Virginia (1)
2018: 23-14 (8-10). 11-seed in ACC. Beat Wake, Loss to UNC. 11-seed. Sweet 16.
- Wins over Arizona State (11-seed in First Four), TCU (6), Michigan State (5).
2021: 18-9 (9-7). 8-seed in ACC. Beat NC State, Loss to Virginia. 11-seed. Sweet 16 (?).
- Wins over San Diego State (6), West Virginia (3).
The zone confuses teams that haven’t seen it. The ACC (and the old Big East) is filled with squads that see the 2-3 every year. But once you get to March it’s perplexing for opponents. Especially on the second game of the weekend, there’s not much time to prepare or study film. This weekend we saw the Aztecs woefully try to shoot over it. The Mountaineers unsuccessfully tried to pass through it. WVU had tons of success rebounding against it, totally owning SU on the offensive glass. But overall the WVU offense was out of sync, especially late.
The regular season is not taken seriously. This is not a popular take in the Boeheim household, but is it possible Jim has seen so many regular season games they just don’t feel all that important? The Orange have a penchant for occasionally losing to inferior teams, while also getting plowed over by superior teams. After 40 years, can you get fired up for a January game against Miami? Perhaps the players also sense a more low key approach. We’ve seen March heroes go through the motions in the regular season.
The ACC is too good of a league. Playing Duke, UNC, FSU, Virginia, and Louisville annually will make any team look bad. It’s the only power conference that prides itself on still being a basketball league. Coach K, Roy Williams and Tony Bennett have all won national championships. When Rick Pitino was in the ACC, he had too. Add in wonderful recruiters like Leonard Hamilton, energy guys like Josh Pastner, and stalwarts like Mike Brey, there’s never an easy night. Once the competition lightens up in the NCAA’s, Syracuse can flex its muscle.
The inconsistent lineup takes a long time to gel. Modern college basketball means a turnover of talent if you’re getting the highest recruits. SU fans have seen plenty of one-and-dones on the Hill, and early departures after one decent March run. There’s rarely consistency with a roster from one year to the next, and Boeheim will quickly bench a player that makes a mistake. If Boeheim buries someone in the doghouse, it’s possible that player won’t see sunlight for weeks. Young players need every rep they can get. SU’s rosters might only come into full focus after 3-4 months of play.
As with anything, the answer is probably a little from all four columns. There’s no doubt SU plays with very little intensity all too often during the regular season. But maybe that comes with experience, and the young players growing up in real time. The ACC is dogged, but the Orange have beaten some good league teams when it’s mattered most as well. The 2-3 zone is clearly the changeup pitch that many schools can’t hit, and in a single-elimination tourney, it’s enough to push the Orange through the brackets.