Filling out an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket without Syracuse somewhere on it is a strange feeling. No matter how old you are, you probably grew up seeing SU featured somewhere in the field every year. These days, the Orange are conspicuously absent from March Madness, but they aren’t the only successful programs to hit a dry streak. Forget down-and-out former powers like Georgetown and Louisville, even perennial qualifiers like Purdue and Virginia are feeling the heat for recent losses. If it’s any consolation to the latter and head coach Tony Bennett, precedent is on his side. Other orange-clad, defensive-minded basketball teams have lost tournament games every year in embarrassing fashion and stuck with their head coaches for a whole lot longer.
Perhaps even more unfulfilling than SU’s recent postseason history was its ridiculous approach to the tournament over the past few seasons. For the last couple of years, SU’s idea of success in the tournament was to simply scrape into the dance as a bubble team and baffle unprepared opponents with its 2-3 zone. Never mind that the ‘Cuse could’ve very well been a more comfortable tournament entrant or higher seed with a tighter, more effective defense. The frustrating thought process was simple: getting to the tournament became all that mattered because you never knew what could happen when a panicky team met Jim Boeheim’s famous zone. Wishful thinking, but SU’s recent teams were all fringey squads you knew deep down were never capable of winning the whole thing.
Sitting back and hoping for flukey games and runs isn’t what Syracuse used to do. From Carmelo Anthony to John Wallace to Pearl Washington, SU once secured top-tier talent for years and developed formidable players. Higher seeds and better results were the norms, and it’s time to acknowledge that approach is what SU’s new staff should strive for. The past few years of tournament play make it clear his team can’t bank on its old party trick to succeed.
16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, 15-seed Saint Peter’s, 15-seed Oral Roberts, and 16-seed UMBC have all indelibly etched their names into tournament history over the past four years thanks to shocking upsets over college basketball titans. 15-seed FGCU’s Sweet Sixteen run a decade ago laid down the blueprint now being followed by every plucky underdog in the tournament, and it’s a blueprint that works far more often than it used to. For the first time ever, a 15-seed has won a game in three straight tournaments. There is no team seeded too low, too talent-deficient, or too small to win games in March. No recent upset specialist played a 2-3 zone, and it’s no guarantee that Syracuse’s old system will fool supposedly weaker teams in the postseason any longer. If SU plans on showing up to the tournament and surprising hungry, capable teams with an ancient system, ‘Cuse’s program is as wise as an astronaut who brought their wallet.
The level of talent present across the board in March means that anyone can beat anyone on any day. Syracuse hoops isn’t part of that realm because it clutched its zone so tightly for so long that everything else around it ended up mattering less. The team needed recruits to fit the zone so that they could play that system in March and see who they could upend in upset victories. Once the team stopped getting top recruits, it still clung to the zone to save it even as its talent level decreased. Syracuse has one Sweet Sixteen run in the last five seasons to show for it.
The time for SU to change is now. Autry and his staff can and should focus their efforts on player development and wean itself off the 2-3 zone, even if the team continues to play it in some capacity. Recruit players who can be versatile and who can develop into legitimate 2, 3, or 4-year talents and not just those who can “anchor” the zone. Autry himself was one of those 4-year talents in the 1990s, and his three tournament appearances during his SU career may give credence to a new approach. Autry’s presence has already paid dividends in the transfer portal, but it’s time to see if Syracuse ditches its old reliance on tournament luck for good and begins focusing on sustainable success in the postseason. For a new staff, anything is possible in the era of roster turnover and postseason parity.