As we countdown to the start of the college basketball season, The Juice Online will tackle a burning question about the Syracuse basketball team in “Tipoff Countdown.”
Today’s topic: The Orange will play only one preseason ranked opponent in its non-conference schedule, and will leave New York for only two games. But does that mean Syracuse is playing a weak non-conference schedule?
It’s become an annual ritual for NCAA basketball pundits. After taking a quick glance at Syracuse’s schedule, college basketball analysts will lament that Syracuse plays a cupcake non-conference schedule and never leaves The Hill.
That’s not likely to change this year, as No. 20 San Diego State is the only opponent that has garnered a preseason rank. Also, while the Orange is traveling all the way to Southern California for the game on Nov. 9, it is considered a “neutral” court, and not a road game.
Unlike the past several years, when the Orange has filled its non-conference slate with Washington, Stanford, North Carolina and Michigan State, the Orange only plays one “BCS” team this season (Arkansas).
But a closer inspection of Syracuse’s schedule shows that the Orange will be playing several mid-majors with a shot at going to the NCAA tournament in March. And the games at Arkansas or against Temple (which is played at Madison Square Garden, obstinately referred to as a home game for the Orange despite being a four hour drive for the Carrier Dome) will be anything but an easy win.
That will make Syracuse’s RPI very competitive when it comes to Selection Sunday. Here’s a look at some of the underrated games in SU’s non-conference schedule:
Princeton (Nov. 21): After a year hiatus from the NCAA tournament, Princeton is the early favorite in the Ivy League, especially after a scandal at Harvard left the Crimson in shambles. Presesaon Player of the Year Ian Hummer averaged 16.1 points and 7.3 rebounds a game last season for the Tigers, and he is considered a fringe NBA prospect. Cornell and Columbia may also compete in the Ancient Eight, but expect the Tigers to be dancing come March.
Eastern Michigan (Dec. 3): In his first season at Eastern Michigan, former SU coach Rob Murphy led his Eagles to the regular season title in the MAC West Conference. Then again, that’s not quite as big an accomplishment as it sounds. The East division was much more competitive than the West, and EMU was seeded fifth in the league tournament. But seniors Derek Thompson and Jamell Harris will return, and JUCO transfers Ray Lee and James Still will add considerable depth and size in the front court.
Long Beach State (Dec. 6): Long Beach State returned to the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since the 2007 season. The 49ers were a popular 5/12 upset pick over New Mexico in the second round, but the Lobos hung on for a 75-68 win. The good news for the 49ers is that they have every opportunity to go dancing again this year. Though LBSU lost Casper Ware, they return guard Michael Caffey and senior forward James Ennis and are favored to win the increasingly competitive Big West conference.
Detroit (Dec. 17): Junior Ray McCallum Jr. is one of the elite guards in the NCAA. A former McDonald’s All American, he was in the top four in three separate categories in the Horizon League last season, finishing with averages of 15.4 points, 4.0 assists and 1.6 steals. His father, coach Ray McCallum Sr., led the team to a Horizon Tournament title and hung tough with Kansas in the NCAA tournament, who eventually went to the Final Four. The Titans also return seniors Doug Anderson and Jason Calliste, and could easily find itself back in the tournament this year.