For the first time I can recall in my multiple decades of following the Syracuse basketball team (there’s a reason my credit here is “senior” columnist… and where are my pills?), a recurring theme is how hard the whole team plays.
Jim Boeheim has mentioned it repeatedly in post-game press conferences. More players have hit the deck for loose balls this season than any SU team I remember. Frank Howard’s wrist and thumb wrap has disappeared, Matthew Moyer and Bourama Sidibe seem to be past their respective leg issues, and Paschal Chukwu’s back injury also seems to be in the rearview mirror.
Every able body on the roster shows up and scraps. They came from down a dozen three times against UNC on Wednesday, getting within three points twice, then finally deployed a late 8-0 run to tie the game before coming up dry in the final three minutes.
For some weird reason (maybe it’s the old thing), I’ve thought of a quote from an old movie several times when pondering this year’s Syracuse team. Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 feature, “Full Metal Jacket”, considered by many to be one of the best movies about the Vietnam War, is the source of this quote.
Actually, it’s just a portion of a sentence, delivered as a compliment by a drill sergeant about a private he is promoting to squad leader.
“…but he’s got guts, and guts is enough.”
No matter how hard they fight through injuries and scrap their way through games on tired legs, this Syracuse team will likely find out that guts are not enough.
The Orange realistically need to sweep the final three games of the season (at Duke, at Boston College, vs. Clemson) to secure an NCAA Tournament bid.
Getting just two wins in their final trio of contests gets them to .500 in ACC play. By the way, they were shut out of the dance last year with a 10-8 ACC record that included more big wins than this year’s crew has amassed (you may not remember that Florida State, Virginia, and Duke were all in the top ten when Syracuse beat them last year, but you probably remember jokes revolving around the phrase “no value added” when the Orange got paired up with UNC-Greensboro in the NIT first round).
Getting all three in the win column would match that 10-8 conference record and give the Orange 21 victories overall. Most importantly, it would give Syracuse two wins against teams in the top ten of the RPI (Clemson has home games with Georgia Tech and Florida State before visiting the Carrier Dome, so they have a good chance to still be there).
Giving SU wins in the easiest of those games in the “win two of three” scenario would mean a road win over BC and a home win over Clemson. This theoretical Clemson win would replace their road win at Miami as their best. Home victories over Buffalo (RPI #39) and Virginia Tech (RPI #45) are the other best on SU’s resume (and neither is guaranteed to stay in the top 50 of the RPI). Even this theoretical win over Clemson does not put much meat on the bone if SU ends up 20-11 and 9-9 in conference, especially if Buffalo and Virginia Tech fade.
Should the Orange end up .500 in conference, there will still be work to do in the ACC Tournament. You may have heard of the ACC Tournament. If not, just know it is a place Syracuse has gone three times in four years during March to lose a basketball game.
In this “win two of three to end at .500” scenario, SU almost certainly ends up in the tenth seed, meaning they get a shot at beating Pitt a third time this season, which is best described as adding empty calories to their NCAA Tournament resume.
Beating the Panthers would set up a second round game against the seventh seed, generally described as “someone who needs to not drop their first ACC Tournament game to lock up their NCAA bid”.
Right now, that is Florida State. But, it could be Virginia Tech or N.C. State or Miami. SU has beat two of those teams, but lost to the other two. And they would almost certainly need to win that game to really help their resume (let’s not even address the possibility of SU beating the Hokies and dropping them from the RPI top 50).
So, while gritty and gutty and every other adjective along those lines, the truth is this inconsistent Orange team (both individually and as a collective) is just not good enough.
They will push Duke, but eventually fall on Saturday, probably by a handful of points, let’s call it eight. Next Wednesday, the defense will slow down Boston College’s high-powered backcourt enough to allow SU to escape Chestnut Hill with a seven-point win. With a .500 conference mark on the line next Saturday and a big, boisterous crowd in the seats, SU will come close, but fall just shy of beating Clemson in a one-possession game.
Pitt will go down in the first round of the ACC Tournament, but Syracuse will exit the following day with a 20-13 record that lacks a signature win and wait to find out whom they will host in the NIT first round.
Hope this doesn’t leave you feeling gutted.