While it’s fun to throw around numbers to make cases for teams who did and didn’t deserve to make the NCAA Tournament, watching the games is always better. Of course, that isn’t easy because there are 351 men’s Division I basketball teams, the same number of cities and towns in Massachusetts. It’s not easy to visit each of those towns, and it isn’t easy to watch every team.
The team I caught the most this season was Syracuse. As an alum, I should be arguing that the Orange were justified in receiving a 10-seed. And yet, not only do I think a 10-seed was too generous, I don’t think Syracuse deserved to make the tournament at all.
The committee clearly drank the ACC Kool-Aid, from slotting two of its teams into 1-seeds right on down to proclaiming Syracuse as one of the 40 best teams. That’s not to take anything away from UNC or UVA, both of whom earned their places, but the deference shown to the ACC is almost as embarrassing as the bracket leaking online during the selection show.
Syracuse, however, owes their tournament berth to the simple fact that they are in the ACC, and not their four-month body of work. You play enough conference games—18 to be exact—and you’re bound to win a couple that make you look good.
For the Orange, there were two games—TWO—out of those 18 where they fought above their weight class. A road win at Duke, and a comfortable home victory over Notre Dame. North Carolina and Pittsburgh both defeated Syracuse twice, with only one of those games being within single digits. They were manhandled by Miami and Louisville, were competitive but unsuccessful at Virginia, and narrowly beat also-rans named Tech, both Georgia and Virginia. Against the top four teams in the conference, Syracuse went 0-5.
And lest we forget, Syracuse lost to Pittsburgh for a third time in the conference tournament. Outside of their matchups, Syracuse had better wins (mostly non-conference) and fewer bad losses. Still, with their profiles being similar, in what world does it make sense that the Orange fell to the Panthers at home, on the road, and at a neutral site…yet both are 10-seeds in the dance? If anything, both should be out on account of their inconsistency.
The point is, Syracuse had a forgettable season in which they were constantly up and down. Just because they had a couple games where they either got hot or caught their opponent on an off day doesn’t mean they deserve to play on. Their body of work was that of a team which couldn’t challenge superior competition on a regular basis.
They did beat UConn and Texas A&M, and those two days in the Bahamas helped their cause immensely. But UConn is another borderline team, and if we’re talking non-conference, it’s tough to ignore bad losses to allegedly inferior teams like Georgetown and St. John’s.
I watched the games, and I can assure you: Syracuse isn’t good. They make some plays and hit some shots. But their offense is largely unwatchable and their zone defense has lost its luster—and the ability to slow down talented teams. Their play inspires zero confidence and mostly just frustrates fans that want them to wake up.
I don’t know who should have made it in over them, but a school like St. Mary’s is a good place to start. I didn’t watch them once, and still, I feel better about their season than Syracuse’s. They coasted to their regular season conference championship, not losing to anyone who finished outside the top four. They had a weaker schedule, but based on results alone, I’d choose the overall consistency and excellence of St. Mary’s over the peaks and valleys of Syracuse.
Applying this to the 351 cities and towns, I’ve seen Brockton, MA, a hundred times and can tell you it has a couple good parts, but is mostly depressing. I’ve never seen Winchester, MA, but I can tell you that, by and large, it’s a better place to be.
Beyond their existence in the ACC, I’ve heard theories about why Syracuse was selected. It’s a make up call for 2007 and 2008, when the Orange narrowly missed out. Or it could be restitution for the harsh penalties the NCAA has levied against them. The most popular theory is that the committee turned a blind eye to the nine games that coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for, during which Syracuse resembled a local junior varsity squad.
If that last one is true, it’s indefensible. The players were the same, and they essentially took a month off. If the committee can ignore a nine game stretch like it never happened, then why do they bother playing the full season?
Maybe there are too many teams in the field. If the NCAA didn’t have the ludicrous money grab known as the First Four, Syracuse might be where they belong, which is the NIT. Maybe it’s just the cost of doing business in American sports. With the possible exception of Major League Baseball, our sports leagues—yes, even NASCAR—put undeserving entrants in the playoffs every year. In a formula where more teams = more games = more money, the NCAA is sure to have its greedy paws all over it.
The damnedest part is, this being the NCAA Tournament and all, Syracuse could very well beat Dayton. If they do, it still won’t justify their presence. If they beat Michigan State, then we can talk.
Until then, though, let’s not pretend that the committee did a great justice. Instead, let’s acknowledge a maddening team that, similar to a place like Brockton, just isn’t very pleasant to be around.