Syracuse men’s basketball’s regular season is in its closing stages, and it certainly feels like the fate of the 2022-23 Orange is cut-and-dry. SU is 8th in the ACC and 88th in KenPom, right above teams like Santa Clara and Vanderbilt and right below others like Southern Miss and VCU. All season long, Syracuse hasn’t even sniffed Joe Lunardi’s frequently-updated Bracketology predictions. Without a shocking outright ACC Tournament championship, Syracuse looks destined to spend March either at home or in a second-tier tournament.
That being said, this year’s edition of ‘Cuse hoops has some things that last year’s bunch did not. Syracuse is more versatile this year off its bench, has a better record (15-10 compared to 16-17 a year ago), and has kept pace in a weak ACC. Could that blend be enough for Syracuse to scrape into the NIT?
Throughout Jim Boeheim’s tenure at Syracuse, the Orange have made the NIT seven times to date. The two most recent instances (2016-17, 2007-08) provide us with blueprints for what other SU squads needed to make it to the second-choice tourney.
In both years, Syracuse finished with a winning record just as it did every season until 2021-22 under Jim Boeheim. The 2016-17 Orange were the lesser squad out of the two and finished 19-15 with a 10-8 mark in the ACC en route to a 7th-place finish. The ‘07-08 squad finished 21-14 and 9-9 in the Big East, which sank it just enough to place 9th in a conference that sent its top eight teams to the tournament.
This year’s squad compares with the previous two record-wise, but that’s where the similarities mostly end. The 2016-17 bunch won big (by 48 vs. Eastern Michigan, by 23 over Boston College, by 29 over Georgia Tech) and lost bigger (by 33 vs. St. John’s, by 20 at Louisville.) The 2007-08 team lost closer games but did so in a strong conference. This year’s team has lost close games but done so against good-to-middling competition. The argument that SU has battled the better teams of the ACC this year loses some steam when considering just how weak the conference is this season.
However, the biggest obstacle standing between Syracuse and the NIT is its strength of schedule. Both of SU’s last two NIT teams look similar in the win-loss column, but both earned their NIT bids against tougher schedules. Thanks to a snarling Big East, the 2007-08 Orange played the nation’s 21st-most difficult schedule. In 2016-17, the ACC sent nine teams to the tournament. SU faced them down on the nation’s 44th-most difficult schedule. This season, the Orange have played a schedule that ranks 99th-toughest in the country. The brand of basketball being played is on par, but it’s being played against softer competition – and played badly against the teams that count.
SU is a combined 1-8 against Quad 1 and Quad 2 teams this season with very few chances left to up its mark. Last year’s squad that whiffed on postseason play altogether had three wins in Quad 1 alone. Matchups against surprising Quad 2 outfits like NC State and Clemson are there for the taking, but even a throwdown against once-ranked Duke on February 18th doesn’t possess the same luster it did months ago.
Unfortunately for the Orange, six wins in their last six games may be the only ticket to the NIT. Such a run may not even guarantee SU punches its ticket there. For Boeheim and company, the waiting game is what comes next – if and only if they win their final key matchups. No matter where the Orange go this postseason, it can’t be said they didn’t have their chances to play on higher ground in March.