NEW YORK — The predictions were tepid, at best.
Back in December, a panel of Syracuse.com reporters projected the Orange’s season, which ranged anywhere from 17-14 to 19-12. The one outlier was Jason Murray, who predicted a 20-11 record.
“I know,” Murray wrote. “This is wildly optimistic.”
Yet here we are at the end of the ACC Tournament, and SU isn’t too far off from Murray’s “wildly optimistic” prediction. After a 78-59 rout at the hands of North Carolina in the second round of the ACC Tournament, the Orange stands at 20-13 (8-10 ACC) with an outside shot of landing an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
Not bad for a team that was projected by many to not even be in the conversation.
“These guys fought as hard as you could ask them to fight,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after the loss, “and I’m very proud of this team.”
What’s more, those projections were made when SU had nine scholarship players available.
When Syracuse played North Carolina, it had just seven after Geno Thorpe left in December for “personal reasons,” and Howard Washington tore his ACL in January.
And that’s not including Tyler Lydon leaving for the NBA and Taurean Thompson’s transfer to Seton Hall.
Those defections and injuries (including Bourama Sidibe and Matt Moyer, who had been limited by ankle and knee issues) should’ve doomed the Orange’s season.
Instead, Boeheim took one of the most inexperienced front lines in the ACC and managed to pull off wins against then-No. 18 Clemson as well as road wins at Miami and Louisville.
Compare that to the 2016-17 edition, which owned three top-10 wins at home over Duke, Virginia and Florida State. But that team could only win two games on the road. And that was a veteran team that had higher aspirations and began the season ranked.
“At the end of the day, we’re playing four freshmen and a front line and one junior who has never played a whole season,” Boeheim said. “So to do what they’ve done, the front-line guys, I just can’t say enough about what they’ve done this year, how they’ve played, how they’ve competed.”
He’s also squeezed every bit of production from Tyus Battle and Frank Howard, who didn’t come off the floor until the waning minutes of both ACC Tournament games.
“You can play a lot of minutes, but you need a little bit of a break,” Boeheim said of his starting backcourt, which combined for 8-39 shooting. “The problem with playing a lot of minutes the way we’re playing is that these guys have to really do it off the dribble.”
The upshot of Boeheim playing such an inexperienced team is that this group will be battle tested next year. Should Battle return, SU’s backcourt will be one of the most experienced in the country. Brissett has shown signs (20 points, 10 rebounds on 5-7 shooting from 3) that he is an emerging star. Marek Dolezaj has developed into a capable glue guy. Sidibe, when healthy, has the potential to be a low post presence that SU has lacked.
Add to that to some talented freshmen coming in and Elijah Hughes becoming eligible, and the Orange figure to be in pretty good shape any way you look at it: Depth. Talent. Offensive scoring punch.
Syracuse may very well end up being one of the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament. But not only has the current group exceeded expectations, but has laid groundwork for an auspicious 2018-19 season.
“We’re a little limited,” Boeheim said. “But very proud of what they’ve done. They’ve really worked hard through it.”