Despite recent losses, Syracuse squarely in NCAA Tournament field

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Syracuse is still in good shape for an NCAA berth

Sorry to disappoint you, Syracuse fans, but even though the Orange looked terrible in their last two games against Louisville and Pittsburgh, the overwhelming likelihood is that they are still going to make the NCAA Tournament.

Regarding whether or not SU is a tournament team, here is where a few bracketologies have them standing as of Wednesday morning, with dates as reference points:

  • ESPN – 10-seed as of Monday, was a 9-seed on Thursday
  • CBS Sports – 9-seed as of Monday, was an 8-seed on Thursday
  • USA Today – 8-seed as of Friday
  • SB Nation – 10-seed as of Tuesday, was a 7-seed on Friday

Yes, the Orange are sliding. Their recent RPI history backs that up. SU was #41 on Saturday, #56 on Monday, and stand at #59 on Wednesday.

While RPI is a factor to see how Syracuse measures up against everyone else in the nation, it’s not an absolute measure. The only thing the Orange did during that time was lose to the team that was ranked #45 on Saturday. How does that make them slide that far? And how did they slide even more without playing someone?

And, hey, Pitt is now #36, so that loss is even better now!

One thing to use RPI for is to see how teams have fared against good teams, or in other words, “who have they beaten?” Syracuse fares well there as of Wednesday morning.

SU is 5-7 against the top 50 in RPI. They have wins at Duke (#11), against Texas A&M (#24 – neutral floor), vs. Notre Dame (#28), vs. St. Bonaventure (#35), and against Connecticut (#39 – neutral floor). The Orange also have losses at Virginia (#5), at Miami (#7), vs. UNC (#8), at Louisville (#20), home-and-away to Pitt (#36), and vs. Wisconsin (#45).

» Related: How did Syracuse propel itself into NCAA field?

Before Wednesday’s games, here are the teams ranked higher in RPI with five or fewer top 50 RPI wins (RPI in parentheses):

  • Five wins – Maryland (#10), Duke (#11), Iowa (#14), California (#19), Texas A&M (#24), Alabama (#50)
  • Four wins – Dayton (#17), Purdue (#22), Notre Dame (#28), Baylor (#26), Indiana (#29), USC (#30), South Carolina (#31), Wisconsin (#45), Vanderbilt (#53), Temple (#57)
  • Three wins – North Carolina (#8), Louisville (#20), Tulsa (#32), Colorado (#34), Connecticut (#39), George Washington (#52), Michigan (#58)
  • Two wins – SMU (#16), Arizona (#25), Saint Joseph’s (#27), Saint Bonaventure (#35), Providence (#38), Arkansas-Little Rock (#40), Florida (#41), Seton Hall (#42), Monmouth (#44), VCU (#47)
  • One win – Pittsburgh (#36), Wichita State (#43), San Diego State (#48), Stony Brook (#51), Yale (#54), Davidson (#56)
  • Zero wins – Princeton (#37), South Dakota State (#46), Akron (#49), St Mary’s (#55)

That is a list of 43 teams ahead of SU in the RPI who have as many or fewer top-50 wins as Syracuse. (Only Cincinnati, UCLA, Stanford, and Clemson are behind the Orange and have four top-50 wins.)

Do you think any of the four teams with zero top 50 wins beats out the Orange for an at-large NCAA bid? Princeton’s strength of schedule is #137 and their best win is over #54 Yale.

When you look at the teams with one top-50 win, it does not get much more impressive. Yale’s lone top-50 win? Of course, it is over Princeton. After that, those two Ivies sport a best win over #130 Columbia. Stony Brook’s lone top-50 win? Also Princeton. If Princeton loses again this year, they likely drop out of the top 50. So, a win over them means less. Sorry, Yale. Sorry, Stony Brook.

Will any of the six teams with one top-50 win will get in ahead of Syracuse, save for Pitt? No, and Pitt is an exception to the rest of those teams, simply because if SU gets back into the top 50, the Panthers automatically jump up to the “three wins” group.

And that, right there, shows the volatility of the RPI.

As I write this on Wednesday morning, Florida State is #76. They play at Duke Thursday night and host Notre Dame on Saturday before closing the season by welcoming the Orange to Tallahassee on Saturday, March 5. Should a desperate FSU team (16-11, 6-9 ACC) team win both of their games this week, they would likely vault into the top 50, adding both one top-50 win to SU’s resume and a shot at a second one. Of course, in that scenario, beating the Seminoles could knock them out of the top-50, taking those theoretical top-50 wins right off Syracuse’s resume.

Speaking of the rest of the schedule, Syracuse closes with a promising set of games. First, they host RPI #101 North Carolina State on Saturday, then travel to #8 North Carolina on Monday and #76 Florida State on the following Saturday.

The most likely outcome for SU is to win two of the three, wrapping wins over the Wolfpack and Seminoles around a loss at UNC. NC State is 4-12 against teams in the top 100 of the RPI and FSU is 7-10 against the same group and that Seminoles record is propped up with four wins against teams ranked 88 through 107. The ‘Noles are also reeling, having lost four in a row with likely losses to Duke and Notre Dame before the finale with the Orange.

In that “most likely” scenario, the Orange would conclude their season 20-11 and 10-8 in ACC play. They would likely be tied with Pitt and Clemson for the #6 seed, but end up slotted eighth due to their losses to both teams. They would then get a one-day bye in the ACC Tournament before facing the #9-seed team, likely Virginia Tech. Figure the Orange win that game, then get knocked off by a rested top-seed team.

At 21-12 with a comparatively strong resume, the Orange would be in. They likely would be around a 10- or 11-seed, but that may help SU. A first round “upset” of a 6- or 7-seed team would get them a second round date with a 2- or 3-seed, not a top seed they would get with a win as an 8- or 9-seed. That sounds a lot more promising for another upset and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.

Pretty crazy talking about the Sweet Sixteen in a (mostly) logical way at this point, huh?

There remains one more facet that should illuminate Syracuse’s season in a positive light. The chairman of the NCAA’s men’s basketball committee said in an email that they would take head coach Jim Boeheim’s nine-game suspension into account when considering Syracuse for a tournament bid.

And, when you factor in the nine games without Jim Boeheim, SU looks significantly better.

The Orange went 4-5 overall and 0-3 in the ACC with Mike Hopkins steering the ship. Striking those games from the Syracuse schedule makes them 14-5 and 8-4 in the ACC.

It’s not just the sheer numbers that go away. Among the five losses that get erased if you only look at the game Boeheim coached are the three worst losses on the team’s resume. Take away losses to Georgetown (#89), Clemson (#107), and St. John’s (#216) and the worst loss the Orange have suffered is to #45 Wisconsin.

Even the four wins Syracuse amassed under Hopkins’ leadership help their NCAA hopes. The best win when Boeheim was away from the team? Texas Southern, who currently stands #201 in the RPI. Not only has Boeheim won 14 of 19 games this season, they include the 11 best wins the Orange have on the season, including all five of their wins against top 50 teams (actually against top 39 teams as of Wednesday).

When you take it all into consideration, the only thing that can keep the Orange out of the NCAA Tournament is a complete faceplant the rest of the season.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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