There’s no easy way to say this, Syracuse basketball fans, so I’ll just say it: as of right now, it feels like it’s going to be next to impossible for the Orange to sneak into the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. I know, it’s not what any of us wants to hear, but after falling to Pittsburgh and finishing the year 19-13, an at-large berth just seems highly unlikely.
The Orange are still firmly on the bubble, but with conference tournaments continuing today and through the rest of the week, the chances of that bubble not bursting are growing slim. There will continue to be upsets in each smaller conference tournament, as well as in some of the Power 5 tournaments. Every time a lower seed pulls an upset, it creates more havoc on the bubble. This year, Syracuse’s resume isn’t strong enough that Orange fans should feel confident.
Stronger Syracuse teams have been left out of the tournament before, most notably the 2006-2007 team that went 10-6 in the Big East and 22-10 in the regular season and BET. That team didn’t have the strength of schedule this year’s team boasts (55th that season, compared to 13th this year), and didn’t fare particularly well against top 25 teams (with a 2-5 record that season, including wins against No. 15 Marquette and No. 12 Georgetown). But the point remains that if that team could get left out in the cold, this year’s squad doesn’t have much hope.
The plus side is that the members of the committee have already said they’ll take Jim Boeheim’s absence into consideration, though I’m not sure that makes things a slam dunk, like I’ve seen a few Syracuse fans suggest. Yes, the Orange went just 4-5 in the nine games without Jim Boeheim, and there were some bad losses during that stretch. And yes, the Orange went on a nice run when Boeheim came back, going 8-2 over the next 10 games.
But the fact of the matter is, Syracuse has lost five of its last six games, and while the record was better with Boeheim on the sidelines, it was still just 15-8; not exactly a world-beating record. That’s not even a top 25-caliber record, and I’m not even getting into the fact that, as a whole, college basketball is seriously down this season.
A 15-8 record translates to a .652 winning percentage, which if applied to those nine games Boeheim missed would put the Orange at around 20-12 or 21-11 with him on the sidelines. Better than 19-13, for sure, but it’s not nearly as substantial a difference as people seem to think.
There’s always a chance that the committee might remember that 2006-2007 season, and realize that the punishments levied toward Syracuse this past offseason were unfairly harsh, and throw the Orange a bone. I mean, after all, it feels like about time for Syracuse to catch a break, doesn’t it?
But I don’t think it’s very likely that happens and, frankly, I’m not sure that playing one game in the NCAA Tournament (or maybe two) is going to be better for this team in the long run. This is an incomplete team with some glaring weaknesses, and they’ve been ignored or glossed over by too many people. Heading into the season, we knew that there would be three main issues:
- The absence of any real post presence, and in particular depth on the interior
- The absence of a proven, consistent secondary scorer to compliment Michael Gbinije
- The absence of a true, game-ready point guard
These were the big question marks at the start of the season, and they’re still the questions right now. Interior depth was and is perhaps the biggest flaw on this team, with Tyler Lydon still being forced to play center far to frequently, with Chino Obokoh never emerging as a capable backup like many of us foolishly hoped.
For the second one, I’m sure people will point to Trevor Cooney. But please note I said a consistent secondary scorer. I don’t think anyone will ever argue that Cooney has been consistent in any way, unless you’re saying he’s been consistently inconsistent. You can’t rely on a guy who might go 1-14 one game and 8-12 the next as your number two scorer. Malachi Richardson has a chance to develop into that guy, but he’s too young and, like Cooney, too inconsistent to fill that role right now.
And as far as the point guard position goes: what a mess. Kaleb Joseph is entirely absent from the rotation after starting almost every game last year, and Gbinije continues to play out of position, handling point guard duties despite being a natural (and the team’s best) scorer. Frank Howard has begun to emerge as a quality half court facilitator, but that development came far too late in the season, and Howard’s inability to score even a little still makes him a liability on the court.
So I mentioned that it might not be in Syracuse’s best interest to play one or maybe two games in the NCAA Tournament. Let me just stress, I want Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. But there’s a very real silver lining if that doesn’t happen.
The NIT seems like a dirty word for basketball fans, but here’s the thing: for a team like Syracuse, which is going to be relying on an awful lot of young guys next season, it could be a blessing in disguise. A run in the NIT gives guys like Richardson, Lydon, and Howard a chance for extended minutes, and since there’s really not much at stake, it lets Boeheim prepare for the future. If the Orange land in the NIT, I’d wager that Howard gets 20 minutes per game for as long as Syracuse is in the field.
And it’s not like momentum can’t be carried over from the NIT. At the end of the 2001-2002 season, Syracuse found itself in the NIT field and made a nice run to the semifinals. The next year, the Orange used that experience gained for young guys like Craig Forth and Josh Pace and Hakim Warrick and won a national championship.
I’m not saying that next year’s Syracuse team will be a national title contender, but I don’t think it can be stressed enough just how much guys like Tyus Battle and Paschal Chukwu and Matthew Moyer and, if the Orange are able to land him, Taurean Thompson are going to add to the roster. Syracuse loses the scoring and, more importantly, the shooting of Michael Gbinije, but otherwise there’s no reason to think the roster won’t be otherwise improved.
And if you give guys like Richardson, and Lydon, and Howard even more minutes and a little bit of confidence that comes with winning three or four more games to close the season (potentially), that’s the kind of thing that carries over. And being excluded from the NCAA Tournament field provides added motivation to get back next year, and kick a little ass.
There’s still a chance, however slim, that the Orange could make the NCAA Tournament. And while I see the benefits of this particular team going to the NIT, I still want Syracuse to make it to the Big Dance. But if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s not very likely…and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.