With just three games remaining in its regular season, Syracuse men’s basketball is desperately scrapping to try and get into a postseason tournament. Last night, the Orange dropped the first of four straight difficult games against top ACC competition. SU fell in South Bend to Notre Dame 79-69 and has now lost seven of its last 10 games. Tack on an upcoming trio of matchups against Duke, UNC, and Miami (all without injured center Jesse Edwards) that look like an absolute murderer’s row, and it’s easy to understand why a lot of pundits dropped the curtain on any Syracuse March Madness chances last night.
Fortunately, Syracuse’s season won’t be completely over even if it whiffs on all three of its final three games. The ACC Tournament in Brooklyn awaits, and SU will be playing in it no matter what. A strong run in the ACC tourney likely won’t be enough to vault the Orange into any serious NCAA tournament conversations – unless they win the whole thing, of course – but a good showing across multiple games could help bolster the team’s middling NIT resumé. At this point, that’s the best you can hope for. But who should Syracuse be hoping to play in the tournament? There’s a couple matchups Syracuse would probably feel pretty good about.
5. The Current Bottom Five (Georgia Tech, NC State, Clemson, Pitt, BC)
It should be a no-brainer, but a first round layup against one of the ACC’s current five worst teams would be a preferable draw for the Orange. Against these unfortunate five, Syracuse is 7-1 with the lone loss coming in a surprising dud against Pittsburgh in late January. Most of the games weren’t particularly close, either. SU lit up BC, Louisville, and Clemson by over 20 points in each of its last matchups against the three.
The reason the ACC’s weak underbelly slots in at only fifth is because a win against a bottom-feeder likely wouldn’t help SU more than it already has. Syracuse has shown that it’s better than these teams already, so another clobbering against a conference weakling wouldn’t go very far to impress any seeding committees.
Louisville is a bad team and sinking, making them not all that different from the five teams bunched together at the fifth spot on this list. However, for a sheer “good visual” win, there may not be a better potential first matchup than the Cards.
UL has been in disarray this year. On January 26th, Louisville fired former head coach Chris Mack after the team started 11-9. The results since under interim coach Mike Pegues have been disastrous. The Cardinals are 1-6 since January 29th, and the one double-digit defeat over that span came against Syracuse in a 92-69 Carrier Dome demolition on February 5th. If SU and Louisville both fall deeper into the ACC over these next few games, the Cardinals could serve as a confidence booster for the Orange ahead of a tougher ACC tourney matchup.
It may seem foolish to slot Virginia at this spot. After all, it’s a team with solid footing, a constricting defense, and one that sits right below the conference’s current 20-game winners. However, UVA is not a perfect team. The Cavaliers have demonstrated over and over this season that they’re beatable, particularly if you catch them on a bad shooting night.
Head coach Tony Bennett’s Cavs have turned the Virginia stereotype up to eleven with this year’s squad: all defense, no offense. It’s the problem that has bedeviled this program before, notably in its construction the year it lost to a 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. This year, the Cavaliers rank 12th in all of Division I in scoring defense, but 336th (out of 358 teams) in offense with just 63.4 points per game. That unevenness has weighed down Virginia this year during losses to James Madison, Clemson, and NC State.
Syracuse battled UVA back on New Year’s day and lost 74-69, but the game was tied at halftime and stayed close throughout despite SU getting just four combined field goals from Cole Swider and Joe Girard. If ‘Cuse can catch Virginia on one of its colder days, the Orange could easily pull out an impressive win over a team that has given them fits the past two years.
The wildcard on this list is one that may look foolish after these two teams lock horns on March 5th. However, the 2021-22 Miami Hurricanes are a flawed team. It took an astounding 18-point choke from Syracuse to lose the first matchup against the ‘Canes by a single point, and the Hurricanes’ flaws have become clearer as the season has gone on.
The ‘Canes are currently a bubble team in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology rankings, and it’s a fair assessment of a team that’s won 20 games despite an inability to rebound (dead last in the ACC in total rebounds, 259th in Division I) or play strong defense (5th worst in ACC, 322nd in opponent field goal percentage). Five of Miami’s wins have come by one or two points. KenPom slots The U at No. 62 in its current rankings, not too far away from Syracuse’s spot at No. 80.
If you take stock in Miami’s supposed status as the ACC’s paper tiger, go ahead and lick your chops if Syracuse draws Miami in the ACC tourney. In round one, the Orange showed they can hang with the Canes and then some. In round two, they can go for a resumé-building counterpunch.
1. Florida State
Finally, we come to perhaps the most ideal draw for SU. Florida State would be Syracuse’s matchup if the season ended today, based on conference standing. For Syracuse, the chance to put a hurt on FSU on its way to a headier matchup would help the team in both record and confidence.
Head coach Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles haven’t looked quite right ever since they were bodied 71-55 against Florida in just the second game of the year. FSU was a trendy pick to make some noise in the ACC in what was an accurately-predicted down year for the conference, but the ‘Noles sit at just 14-13 and 7-10 in the ACC at the time of this writing. It’s clear that the departure of last year’s three leading scorers (M.J. Walker, Raiquan Gray, and Scottie Barnes) hurt this team badly. FSU’s faulty three-point shooting and defensive rebounding present a welcoming matchup for Syracuse in two areas of weakness.
Syracuse and Florida State have split the season series, with SU winning a gritty 63-60 road test back in December and FSU taking a 76-71 decision in the Carrier Dome on January 15th. At the very least, SU knows the ‘Noles are a solid but beatable team. Taking two of three from a fairly equal matchup at the start of the tourney could go a long way in heating the Orange up on their way to tougher competition.