In the latest edition of a multi-part series, editorial staff of The Juice Online discuss various topics in Syracuse basketball. Today’s topic: Is Syracuse an “elite” basketball program?
Wesley Cheng: Saugat, Syracuse is fifth all time in NCAA wins behind just Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Duke. Yet there have been debates as to whether Syracuse is an “elite” program. Which side of this argument do you fall on?
Saugat Sen: I think that depends on what you define as Elite. There are a lot of teams that have gone through phases that would be considered elite like the UCLA teams of the 70s and the UNC teams of the last decade. And then those same programs have struggled mightily at other times—UCLA now and UNC during the Doherty era. So I think you have to define “Elite” by an era or perhaps by a coach. I mean, if I asked you right now of the top your head, name the 5 teams that you think of when someone mentions college basketball. What are they?
WC: I may annoy some Orange fans by saying this, but: Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA (and if I had to name a sixth, Indiana). Syracuse to me falls in tier 1A. I think this is a lot like the case of Mike Mussina for the Hall of Fame. Mussina never won a Cy Young and only got to 20 wins in a season once, but he was consistent throughout his entire career, and makes a case for Cooperstown. It’s similar here. Like you said, some of those powerhouses have struggled while SU has won 20 games a season like clockwork. But Syracuse has one national championship while programs like UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), Indiana (5), UNC (5), Duke (4) and Kansas (3) have had multiple. To me, you have to have the overall wins plus the championships to be “Elite.” Mussina and SU were great, and certainly deserve consideration for elite, but I think they both fall just short. What is your criteria?
SS: Funny you say that because I wouldn’t have Syracuse in the Top 5 either. I will go with, UNC, Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas. When you ask me for time periods, I would go with coaches. And in recent times, it has been hard to top Roy Williams, Coach K, Cal, Izzo and Bill Self. I would put Boeheim era Syracuse somewhere between 5-10. Yes, he is tops in wins at one school, but in the last 20 years, he has missed the tournament 5 times. In the last 20 years Duke has missed the tournament only once, UK with Cal has been to the Elite 8 in his three years there and Michigan State with Izzo in 17 years has only missed the NCAAs twice (his first two years). Bill Self has never missed the NCAA tournament in 9 years. To be considered one of the Top 10 programs in College Basketball is still very special. Just not elite.
WC: So we both agree that Syracuse as the record stands right now is not an “elite” team. What would change your mind? Let’s say that Syracuse has a similar run next year that it had this year, but instead of losing in the Elite 8, the team romps through the postseason and wins a championship. Would Syracuse having two championships plus being fifth in wins change your mind?
SS: A championship run will definitely help. But I still don’t think you can call SU “elite”. The total number of wins help, but only 1 championship and only 5 Final Fours hurt. If SU were to win two more, we can safely call them “elite”. Right now if you want to label them, we have to go with “top tier.” Or maybe there is another word for “sub elite”?
WC: It seems arbitrary, but I agree. I think three championships and No. 5 overall in wins gets them to that elite status. For now, they’re a “great” program, and that’s still something to be proud of as a Syracuse fan.