Sports are funny. In any given sport, on any given day, any team can beat just about anyone. Well, except for Pitt basketball. They’re just terrible.
A missed layup here, a dropped pass there, maybe a questionable call on what could have been the third strike in the bottom of the ninth, and the outcome of a game can change completely.
Which is why it’s always interesting to sit back and reflect a bit on what actually defines success for any particular team. In this instance, it’s Syracuse basketball. The Orange are unquestionably one of the most successful programs in college hoops history, going by total wins alone. But level of success fluctuates with just about any team, in any sport, over time.
The Orange square off against North Carolina tonight in what will, if we’re being honest with ourselves, most likely be a loss. The Heels have always been a bad matchup for Syracuse given their size and athleticism, particularly against a Syracuse team that, this year, is almost entirely lacking depth.
We’re getting down to crunch time in the season, where tonight could very well make or break how we measure the success of the 2017-18 campaign. Yet I can’t help but wonder if, miraculously, we should already be qualifying this current season a success?
I say miraculously because, let’s be real, this was always going to be a difficult year for Jim Boeheim and his crew. The odds were seriously stacked against the Orange, who limped to a 19-15 record last year with what, on paper, appeared to be a much more talented team than the one he’s putting on the floor every night this season.
That’s not to mention the fact that every single bit of guard depth was lost early, from the unexpected departure of Geno Thorpe to the season-ending injury for Howard Washington, leaving Tyus Battle and Frank Howard to carry the entire load for the bulk of the year. When your third guard heading into March is a former walk-on who spent the first part of his career in Division III, that’s a pretty good sign you’ve got an absurdly short bench.
Then we get into the various injuries that have plagued the Orange, and in particular Bourama Sidibe, Matt Moyer, and to a degree, Paschal Chukwu (who was pretty clearly in some pain last night hobbling up and down the court – after a late dunk, the grimace on his face as he turned and went back on defense was readily apparent).
Throw in the fact that Taurean Thompson bolted in the offseason, leaving Battle and Howard as the only two players with any actual (meaningful) minutes under Boeheim on the entire roster, and that, friends, is what you call playing against a stacked deck.
And yet, the Orange are 20-12. Yeah, they’re 8-10 in ACC play, which is disappointing (if not unexpected). But this team is only the second in the last four seasons to reach what had previously been considered a “magic number” of sorts when it comes to quantifying the year as a success. And amazingly, even though I know we’ve got some games left to be played, right now this roster somehow has the fewest losses over that four-year span. Even the team that made that entirely unexpected run to the Final Four lost 14 games (and finished the year with only 23 wins, meaning they went into the tournament with a worse record than the Orange team that will be suiting up against Carolina tonight).
The Orange were pegged to finish 10th in the conference in the official ACC preseason poll, which means the team’s actual finish (11th) is actually coming in under expectations. But go back and look at Syracuse.com’s preseason predictions, and you’ll see picks of 17-14 by Chris Carlson and Mike Waters, and 18-13 by Donna Ditota and Dennis Nett. Brent Axe nailed the overall record of 19-12, with only Jason Murray’s expectations of 20-11 failed to have been met. This year’s team exceeded the expectations of four out of the six people who cover the program on a daily basis and know as much about the goings-on within the team as well as just about anyone.
It’s always disappointing when the Orange notch double-figures in the loss column, and the fact that it’s happened in four straight seasons is hard to stomach. It’s also tough when you consider this is the first losing conference record that Syracuse has had since 2005-06 (which, by the way, was still a season that ended pretty damn memorably).
But when you factor in just how limited this year’s roster is, with no one you’d really call a knock-down shooter on the entire roster, zero guard depth, and a frontcourt with virtually zero experience, it’s hard for me to complain too much about 20 wins and a chance for more. I realize that I typically look at the world through orange-colored glasses, but I also like to think of myself as something of a realist when it comes to my fandom.
And right now – and I never thought I’d say this, considering how frustrating this team has been to watch at times over the year – I think I’d mark this year down as a success.
The fact that a 20-12 (to date) record could be counted as anything less really puts into perspective just how good this program has been historically. And it could always be worse. Because, again… we could be Pitt.