“Rome wasn’t built in a day” is a familiar refrain for any sports fan waiting for a program or team to get back to its feet. Emotional investment in a team involves a lot of waiting for that “Rome” to develop. In very rare instances like Syracuse men’s basketball, that sought-after prosperity and success is extended for a great length of time. In this case, it’s been decades since Syracuse fans have known losing. It took the Roman Empire about 400 years to start declining, and it’s now looking like the Orange Empire is starting its respective downturn circa 46 AB (After Boeheim).
Of course, the Romans never appeared on Big Monday versus Georgetown even once, so it’s an easy call to identify which empire has been more culturally and historically significant.
Comparisons aside, SU men’s hoops is struggling through a surprisingly mediocre season that has raised alarms about the program’s stature. After 45 straight winning campaigns, Jim Boeheim’s squad looks tired, disorganized, and extraordinarily thin on depth. At 7-8, the Orange haven’t been this poor so late in a season since 1968-69, back when they were an Independent playing under Roy Danforth in the 9,500-seat capacity Manley Field House.
There’s still half a regular season of basketball left to be played for SU, but the remaining gradient is steep. The Orange still have to play Duke (twice), UNC, and tough ACC outfits like Virginia Tech, Miami, and Wake Forest. If those games don’t swing Syracuse’s way, it could be on its way to its first NIT tournament since 2016-17 – or its first true postseason-less year since 1992-93. Yes, Syracuse still makes the tournament frequently and occasionally puts together deep runs. However, the team hasn’t won a conference title since moving to the ACC, and one of those – or another Final Four run – doesn’t look like it’s in the cards for this team in the near future. Sudden losing was never going to afflict a program like this, but it’s time to recognize that SU hoops fails to live up to its shiny pedigree far more often than not. Better talent will get the Orange back to their feet, but it’s time to look at why they don’t have it.
There’s a couple big reasons why SU has careened off course this year, and they’re not as simple as pointing out that the team’s defense is the worst in over 30 years or that Jimmy Boeheim has charity-stripe yips. The wobbliness of Syracuse’s 2021-22 season is owed to its cracked foundation, thanks to years of declining recruiting and rough transfer portal crops.
Since moving to the ACC, the Orange have been consistently outmaneuvered for the best talent and failed to retain the guys they actually sign. Any SU fan paying attention to the latest recruiting cycle can easily recall former commit Kamari Lands’ flip to Louisville and ‘Cuse’s short pursuit of 5-star center Kyle Filipowski, whose decision to attend rival Duke over SU eventually felt inevitably unsurprising.
Since 2014, Syracuse has signed 25 players via the recruiting trail. Seven of them lasted just a single season before transferring or heading to the NBA, and nine in total eventually transferred out of the program. Others who don’t fit that description include bit players like Howard Washington (three seasons, 42 points scored), John Bol Ajak (currently in third season, 64 total minutes), and the immortal Ray Featherston (10 total minutes in three seasons). Between 2018-2020, six of SU’s 11 recruits transferred out of the program, and the only commits left from its past two classes are center Frank Anselem and freshman forward Benny Williams, who have each struggled to see the floor and contribute this season. SU has gone through players like water, and it only makes its declining national class rankings (33rd to 42nd to 75th over the past three seasons) look even worse, especially with the team’s inability to recruit good centers now coming to the forefront. Next year’s batch of recruits looks to be the strongest group in years and could very well alleviate these problems, but SU needs to prove it can actually retain talent and not alienate its best recruits. If the team can pull off the balancing act and keep its newcomers happy, things will get brighter quickly.
In the current moment, things wouldn’t be so rough if not for the NCAA’s April 2021 decision to scuttle the transfer portal’s sit-out requirement, which has ushered in a new era of whirlwind player movement. SU has unfortunately borne the brunt of the rule this season, losing would-be regular contributors like Quincy Guerrier and Kadary Richmond last Spring. Their production void forced the team to fill their spots with more inconsistent pieces like forwards Jimmy Boeheim and Cole Swider. The resultant patchwork roster has been all over the place and worn down late in games trying to shield the team’s nonexistent bench. Take blown leads of 18, 17, and 10 points in key losses this year as proof of the team’s poor construction.
Then there’s Jim Boeheim, who’s now laboring in unfamiliar sub-.500 territory. He has himself partly to blame. On the court and in his media appearances, Boeheim has shuffled around with a scowl more befitting of someone with acute appendicitis than of a basketball coach. His rhetoric in recent years – from criticizing career choices of a former recruit to essentially calling a former player lazy – can’t help his appeal to prospective newcomers. In the age of social media, having “no filter” is much more of a detriment than a commendable trait.
At the midseason point of a lacking season, this nor other articles should serve as an autopsy for SU basketball. The team could very well flip a switch and propel itself to its usual heights, but losing games breeds questions. It’s the duty of every fan and writer alike to examine them and be objective, and doing so reveals a program that has itself to blame for hard times. Declining to this point didn’t occur in a day, and building back up may take even longer.