It was not that long ago that Syracuse fans were all in a tither over the fact that the 2012-2013 Orange hoopsters were not getting enough national respect. As the season approaches its end, it would appear that it was these vocal fans, rather than the poll voters who received the targeted criticism, that were incorrect. After all, Syracuse is on a 4-6 streak in its last 10 games. The only wins were home games against Providence, St. John, and Notre Dame (by far, the best win/game during that stretch), as well as a road game against Seton Hall. The Orange have gone from a potential #1 seed to wondering what it would take to land a #4 seed.
As this author is a long-time Syracuse fan, it is easy to see the folly in the fans questioning the pollsters. History has shown better Syracuse teams getting upset in the first round of the Big Dance, as well as worst teams making a run. Really, who cares whether a team is ranked #1 or #3 in a December poll? Who cares whether Joe Lunardi has Syracuse as a #2 seed in January? There are only two things that matter: (a) making the Big Dance; and (b) winning during it. Everything else is secondary. Worrying about respect is rather pathetic and no fan of any program should worry about it too much. And this one does not.
But, as a long-time Syracuse fan, the flaws with this team were always rather apparent. Only one bona fide shooter on the team–James Southerland. And he has come up cold in key moments more often than not during his career. Kind of the opposite of Gerry McNamara, who saved his best for the big games and big moments. More like an A-Rod. The Arkansas game was a big showcase for Southerland; unfortunately, it was more of an anomaly on the season. Even worse, however, is the lack of ANY offense from the big men. That allows other teams to focus on the already-weak outside shooters. And the smart Big East coaches, with talented teams and good schemes, has Syracuse averaging less than 60 points per game in their 6 conference losses. Moreover, while Michael Carter-Williams may have NBA scouts drooling, that potential is nowhere near being realized. He is still a sophomore, and not all sophomores go from backup guard to NBA player in the transition year (spoiled by Dion Waiters?). So it is what it is. This was never a top 5 team and it was silly to think otherwise.
Yet, before any Syracuse fans go looking for a tall building to leap off of… keep in mind that this team is not nearly as bad as a three-game losing streak or 4-6 streak indicates. The losses this season are to 21-8 Temple (N), 23-4 Georgetown (H), 24-5 Louisville (H), 21-7 Marquette (A), 22-7 Pittsburgh (A), 19-9 Connecticut (A), and 18-11 Villanova (A). The Big East losses are against teams with at least a .500 conference record. Only Villanova has any chance of missing the Big Dance based on performance (UConn, of course, will miss it for other, NCAA sanction reasons). So this is not a Syracuse team that is losing to bottom feeders. And Syracuse is not getting blown out in losses either–the average margin of defeat in the losses is less than 7 points. And the defense has remained quite good. In the Big Dance, the opponents will be teams that likely have not faced the length and athleticism of the 2-3 zone. So if the defense is good against teams/coaches that see it every year, just wait until the other opponents have to face it. If Syracuse can lower its opponents scoring by 5 points and hit one more three-pointer, a 7 point loss becomes a victory. So all is not lost.
Most importantly, a game against DePaul looms. DePaul is a team that Syracuse can and should beat. If it cannot, it might be time to panic. But if Syracuse can win, maybe they can start building some confidence and momentum back. And the Big East tournament provides yet another opportunity to right the ship. As UConn showed a few years ago, you can be terrible down the stretch, but get hot in March and win it all. Free fall or not, it’s not over until it is truly over.
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