Year after year the Syracuse Orange leaves Madison Square Garden after an early season tournament and fans and experts alike usually have some indication of how the team is going to fare for the remainder of the season. This year, however, barring an unforeseen collapse, Syracuse will win and we still won’t know anything about this team.
This year’s NIT Season Tip-off features a semi-final match-up on Wednesday at 9 p.m. against Virginia Tech (projected to finish fourth in the ACC) and then a potential final against either Oklahoma State (projected to finish fifth in the Big 12) or Stanford (projected to finish sixth in the PAC-12).
Not exactly cream of the crop. Of those three, only Oklahoma State received votes in this week’s ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. And I’m fairly sure all six of those were cast for an unproven freshman named Le’Bryan Nash.
Call me crazy, but I would like to see a little more competition in our early season tournaments.
Last year the Orange skipped the Garden altogether and traveled down to Atlantic City, N.J. to battle the likes of Detroit and William and Mary (just squeaking by both), before barely beating an unranked Michigan squad 53-50 in the Championship. That sounds like a team that would finish 12-6 in conference play and bow out of the NCAA tournament in the third round.
I miss the battles of seasons gone by when the ‘Cuse would go head-to-head against the No. 12 and No. 4 teams in the country back-to-back (California and UNC in 2009). Or at least test themselves against the No. 18 and No. 23 teams (Florida and Kansas in 2008).
Last year, the team’s first test came on Dec. 7 against No. 8 Michigan State. This year it’s No. 9 Florida on Dec. 2. I understand the need for padding the win column and letting your team gel and go through the motions together, but isn’t that mindset better suited for an inexperienced squad, and not one that is heralded as “battled-tested?”
This is the No. 5 team in the country—a team that returned all but one of its core and added two heavily recruited contributors. A soft schedule won’t help this unit.
In order for this tournament to provide any sort of validation, Syracuse needs to win each game by at least twenty points in convincing blow-out fashion. Then I might be willing to say the No. 5 ranking is deserved and could stick around for awhile. Yet, even with that assertion, we still won’t get a glimpse at the bigger picture.
This season is unlike any in years past with the depth and talent at head coach Jim Boeheim’s disposal. And while I’m sure he’s enjoying the deployment of hockey-style line-changes in these early season blowouts, how will that help him in determining a rotation? How will he know who he can count on in pressure situations?
After Florida, the next ranked opponent is the team that knocked the Orange out of the tournament last year, No. 17 Marquette on Jan. 7 in a Big East Conference game. Why will this Orange team be any more prepared than the squad that was upset 66-62 just over seven months ago?
Is Fab Melo ready to play against bigger competition? Is Scoop Jardine ready to be a distributor and take a back seat with his scoring when they are trailing in a close game? Are the freshmen ready to play big minutes in big games?
Those are questions that, along with many others, will likely remain unanswered until Big East conference play begins. And once it does there is no turning back. No time for adjustments and new strategies. Without testing itself more in the infancy of the new season, the Orange are missing opportunities to address weakness and will likely overestimate strengths.
The prospects for change and improvement will have vanished in the likely drubbings of lesser foes like Eastern Michigan, Tulane and Bucknell.
Hopefully for the Orange, this veteran squad is good enough to not need that time. The dangerous part is that if they aren’t, they won’t know until it’s too late.