This season’s schedule is almost completely devoid of top-end challenges in the non-conference portion. The biggest names are Connecticut, Ohio State, Georgetown, and whichever one of Iowa and #14 Oregon the Orange will face in the 2K Classic. Only the ACC-Big Ten Challenge game with the Buckeyes is a true road game and the 2K Classic takes place at SU’s home away from home, Madison Square Garden. One foe not to be overlooked is Buffalo, who claimed 14 points in the inaugural AP poll.
The ACC section of the schedule, however, will make up for any perceived softness in early season play, as seven teams from the conference earned preseason top 25 honors. The Orange get home-and-home sets with #4 Duke and #22 Clemson and another pair of tough road trips, as they will visit #8 North Carolina and #15 Virginia Tech. #5 Virginia and #17 Florida State both come to the Dome for their lone matchups. Four other ACC teams (Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami, and North Carolina State) also earned preseason votes, meaning 12 of Syracuse’s 18 conference games will be against teams mentioned in the preseason polls.
SU will finish that difficult conference slate with a flurry, as a set of five games in 13 days includes Louisville, Duke, and Virginia all coming to the Carrier Dome with visits to North Carolina and Wake Forest in the middle. While that meat grinder follows an off week, that two-week stretch in February and March will go a long way in determining where the Orange are seeded in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.
No matter what the schedule looks like, the Orange are talented enough on paper to go toe-to-toe with anyone on it. It has been proven the starting five are capable of airtight defense and improvements made both in the offseason and during practice should make their offense better. Hughes, Carey, and even Boeheim could help on offense and Sidibe should provide another live body at center, allowing the undersized Dolezaj to stay a little more out of harm’s way.
Speaking of Dolezaj’s experience at center, that is a crucial card in coach Jim Boeheim’s deck. That versatility allows Boeheim additional flexibility based on what he needs from his team based on the game situation, whether it be offensive firepower, shutdown defense, protecting a player in foul trouble, or a speedier full-court press unit. There are may lineup options in the top nine players on the roster and the head coach should be able to tinker with his roster, finding a group for any scenario.
This year’s Syracuse team looks like a team who will be playing for NCAA Tournament seeding in February, not trying to hang onto the bubble. The Orange should go 11-2 or better in non-conference play and a 12-6 record in the ACC meat grinder seems like a fair ask. That means 23-8 before the ACC Tournament, so maybe they get to 25 wins before the NCAA’s start. The #16 ranking in the preseason polls tells you what SU should be aiming for – a Sweet Sixteen appearance. That’s a fair goal for this group and their combination of defense and experience could get them even farther.