Syracuse basketball surprisingly in good shape for NCAA Tournament bid

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Syracuse still needs some work to make the tourney

Once again, Syracuse is residing on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A new annual exercise in potential frustration is here once more and, with only four games remaining on the schedule, it is time to try to figure out what the Orange need to do to get a dance ticket.

At least I have one piece of information gained from last year’s Championship Week study of the bubble: Ignore Joe Lunardi from ESPN.

That’s not fair. I gained more than one piece of information last year.

The most noteworthy piece of info was that there was a lot of less-than-impressive basketball played by college teams on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament field last year. That is the case again, so, comparing the Orange and their neighbors in the RPI can shed light on how close the Orange is to being in… or out.

Following Wednesday’s games, SU resided at #79 in the RPI, surrounded by teams who are not the who’s who of college basketball history. Some of those major conference neighbors are Auburn (#71), Illinois (#72), New Mexico (#74), Stanford (#75), Penn State (#77), Georgia Tech (#78), Utah (#80), and Marquette (#81). Yes, it would be better to hear about Dino Babers’ team keeping this company.

While the Syracuse fanbase is well-versed in the resume Jim Boeheim’s squad has written this year, particularly the losses to Georgetown, St. John’s, Connecticut, and Boston College, some of those losses may not be that bad. The Hoyas stand #61 in the RPI. St. John’s and UConn are at #118 and #121, respectively.

Offsetting those losses are SU’s five wins against teams residing in the RPI top 50: #11 Florida State, #15 Virginia, #38 Wake Forest, #48 Monmouth, and #50 Miami. They also have wins over #51 Clemson and #60 Pittsburgh, so there is a chance to offset Mami (or Monmouth or Wake Forest) dropping from the top 50, should that happen.

» Related: Minimum of five games left to decide Syracuse basketball’s postseason

Side note: Something, whatever it is, will happen. This column was pushed back from Thursday to Friday, so I updated it Thursday afternoon. Miami’s win over Georgia Tech boosted them from #54 to #50. In the process, they leapfrogged Clemson, sliding the idle Tigers from #50 to #51. Most importantly, it kept SU’s resume having five top 50 wins intact… until Monmouth plays a couple more games against conference foes so weak, beating them will not keep them from sliding from the top 50.

But, I digress….

No one below Syracuse in RPI has more than three wins over the RPI top 50. How far up do you have to go to find a team at least five top 50 wins on their resume? West Virginia, who is at #30. #24 Notre Dame has six such wins and the top 20 is where you get teams who have quality wins stacked like cordwood.

In other words, those five wins SU has over top 50 teams are worth their weight in gold.

By the way, of the 78 teams ahead of Syracuse in the RPI, 28 of them have at most one win against the top 50. It will be very difficult for any of those teams, particularly those from smaller conferences, to get an at-large bid over the Orange.

Getting back to those major conference teams hanging around SU’s RPI neighborhood, here’s a brief comparison of how they stack up with SU:

Auburn – 16-10 vs. Division I, 5-8 in SEC, 1-5 vs. RPI top 50
Illinois – 13-12 vs. Division I, 4-9 in Big Ten, 2-7 vs. RPI top 50
New Mexico – 16-10 vs. Division I, 9-5 in Mountain West, 0-6 vs. RPI top 50
Stanford – 11-13 vs. Division I, 4-9 in Pac-12, 1-10 vs. RPI top 50
Penn State – 14-13 vs. Division I, 6-8 in Big Ten, 3-5 vs. RPI top 50
Georgia Tech – 14-11 vs. Division I, 6-7 in ACC, 4-7 vs. RPI top 50
Syracuse – 16-11 vs. Division I, 8-6 in ACC, 5-6 vs. RPI top 50
Utah – 15-8 vs. Division I, 8-5 in Pac-12, 1-6 vs. RPI top 50
Marquette – 15-10 vs. Division I, 6-7 in Big East, 3-5 vs. RPI top 50

Finishing .500 or better in a major conference and having a solid list of quality wins are two of the checkmarks that make it easy to get an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Of that list, only Georgia Tech and Marquette come close to matching the Orange.

Even when you go higher in the RPI, you find plenty of teams lacking in at least one of those two categories, such as…

#38 Wake Forest – 6-8 in ACC, 1-8 vs. RPI top 50 (0-7 vs. RPI top 25)
#40 Seton Hall – 6-7 in Big East, 3-5 vs. RPI top 50
#46 Tennessee – 13-12 overall, 6-7 in SEC, 1-8 vs. RPI top 50
#49 TCU – 6-7 in Big 12, 2-7 vs. RPI top 50 (0-4 vs. RPI top 25)
#51 Clemson – 14-11 overall, 4-9 in ACC, 4-8 vs. RPI top 50 (0-7 vs. RPI top 25)
#52 Georgia – 14-11 overall, 6-7 in SEC, 1-6 vs. RPI top 50 (0-4 vs. RPI top 25)
#57 Providence – 16-11 overall, 6-8 in Big East, 3-7 vs. RPI top 50
#60 Pittsburgh – 14-12 overall, 3-10 in ACC, 2-8 vs. RPI top 50
#61 Georgetown – 14-12 overall, 5-8 in Big East, 3-8 vs. RPI top 50
#65 Ohio State – 15-12 overall, 5-9 in Big Ten, 2-9 vs. RPI top 50

Most of those teams should consider printing tickets to host NIT games instead of pursuing hotel deals in NCAA Tournament host cities.

When you add teams that are from smaller (read: one-bid) conferences, roughly half of the teams ahead of Syracuse in RPI are actually behind them in NCAA Tournament consideration.

Now, while Syracuse has a resume that compares favorably to a lot of their competition for at-large bids, their resume comes with a to-do list paper clipped to it. And here it is, in a mixture of importance and timing…

1.) Sweep Georgia Tech.

Taking the home-and-home set with the Yellow Jackets would give the Orange clear separation from this ACC foe and possibly knock them out of NCAA contention. Oh, and an SU sweep would guarantee them at least a 10-8 ACC record.

2.) Root for Miami.

Miami plays Clemson on Saturday and the Hurricanes are much more likely to stay in the RPI top 50 and/or make the NCAA Tournament than the Tigers, who are only 4-9 in conference play. Miami has a stacked final two weeks (at Virginia, vs. Duke, at Virginia Tech, at Florida State) and winning one or two of those games, plus a win over Clemson, should keep them in the RPI top 50. The Orange would be helped by the ‘Canes staying there.

3.) Beat Duke or Louisville.

Obviously, 11-7 in the ACC would be even better than 10-8, and it would also get SU to the finish line with a 19-12 record. In addition, another top 50 win would likely guarantee Syracuse an NCAA dance ticket, or at least offset one of the teams they beat sliding from the top 50. Also, winning both of these games would more than offset a split – or worse – with Georgia Tech.

4.) Win first ACC Tournament game.

The Orange are 0-2 in the conference tourney in three years in the ACC, featuring last year’s rally from 12 down in the final 4:27 to lose to Pitt by one point and six shots with zero success in the final 25 seconds against North Carolina State three years ago. The Orange will very likely play a team desperate for a win to help get in the Big Dance. Beating that team would get SU to 20 wins and help them separate from the mass of ACC bubble teams. It would also give them another shot at a top 50 RPI win in the next round.

5.) Get a 10- or 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

With this Syracuse team being as flawed as they are, trying to avoid getting an 8- or 9-seed and a potential second round matchup with a #1 seed is a good idea. It’s not about a lower seed being a sign of disrespect from the committee, it’s about giving an erratic team an easier path to advance.

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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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