Thirty four wins. Thirty four losses. Wanna take a guess what that refers to?
That is the combined record of the first eight opponents the Syracuse Orange basketball team has faced. Nothing to shake a stick at. At all.
Here are some more numbers: 31, 20, 36, 36, 31, 52. No, those are not the numbers of my losing Powerball ticket. Those would be the margins of victory in six of Syracuse’s eight contests thus far. What gives?
Well, for years, the country at large has berated coach Jim Boeheim for his cupcake non-conference schedule. Now, in years past, I would argue that the country at large was uninformed. Yes, Syracuse sometimes lacks big names on its conference. They rarely run the gauntlet of non-conferences tests that, say, Michigan State signs up for year in and year out.
But, undoubtedly, come tournament time, you look at the field of 64/65/68, and you will see lesser names filling out the brackets that matched up against the Orange earlier in the year. The Cornells, Northern Iowas, Oaklands, and Sienas of the world do not strike fear in the eyes of Syracuse or the rest of the country. But, those teams have proven to be capable of big things come March in past years.
And, within the last five years, Syracuse’s non-conference opponents have included such elite names like Ohio State, Florida (three times), Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina, Michigan, Michigan State, and NC State.
But, this season… ugh. San Diego State and Arkansas have headlined the non-conference slate, with the Aztecs being the only team on the non-conference schedule projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi to be in the NCAA Tournament (as of December 11th). The San Diego State game, while against a ranked opponent, looked more like a meteorological experiment or a segment shoot to benefit Sports Science to see how the weather affects sports performances of what is normally an indoor sport. And, Arkansas was billed as a team that would represent a tough style of play to match up against. But, what most ignored was the disparity in talent. Oh yeah, and Syracuse does not mind getting up and down the floor at all.
So, is the non-conference schedule really weaker than in past years? Or, are the Orange really just that much more talented than their opponents?
Here’s a breakdown of Syracuse’s non-conference record and average margin of victory in the last four seasons, all of which ended in an NCAA berth:
- 2008-09: 12-1 record, average margin of victory of 13.00 points (#3 seed in NCAA Tournament)
- 2009-10: 12-0 record, average margin of victory of 25.91 points (#1 seed in NCAA Tournament)
- 2010-11: 13-0 record, average margin of victory of 18.08 points (#3 seed in NCAA Tournament)
- 2011-12: 13-0 record, average margin of victory of 21.69 points (#1 seed in NCAA Tournament)
- 2012-13: 8-0 record, average margin of victory of 28.50 points (???)
OK… so the Orange have lost just one non-conference game in that span, with 58 wins. Not too shabby. So far, this season has the best margin of victory by almost three points a game.
What to make of all this nonsense? Statistically, the Orange has done marginally better than in past seasons in the early part of their schedule. However, it is not anything completely out of the ordinary.
Instead, the non-conference schedule has yielded two results when being judged on the eye test:
- The opponents have lacked both marquee name recognition and the toughness to hang with the Orange. Just as an example, Monmouth was tied 19-19 with Syracuse midway through the first half on Monday, only to be outscored 89-37 in the final 30 minutes.
- This may not be the best Syracuse team in recent memory. If you rolled out a ball and let present and past Syracuse teams play it out, maybe Carmelo’s 2002-03 squad beats them or the 2009-10 team with Wesley Johnson, Andy Rautins and company gives them a run. Heck, maybe even last season’s team wins out against this year’s team. But, there seems to be a wider gap in the talent levels between this year’s team and its opponents. This year’s team has not let a team stick around. Syracuse teams have been known in the past for letting some unknown drain seven 3-pointers and make things far too uncomfortable until the final buzzer sounded. Not this year. Jumping out to fast starts, the Orange have maintained solid performances from start to finish.
Maybe it is the depth of this year’s squad that allows them to extend leads when its reserves are in the game. But, then again, last season’s team may have been the deepest in the country.
So, what to make of all this nonsense?
No, this season’s non-conference schedule does not have any heavyweights on it, at least not to this point. But, this team has been efficient in ways that past Syracuse teams that may have been more talented have not been. Every piece of the puzzle seems to fit in with the next one. There are no skill sets that are repeats of another from one player to the next. Michael Carter-Williams runs the show, distributing to James Southerland on the wing or DaJuan Coleman or Rakeem Christmas down low, all properly spaced in their comfort zones. The offense does not miss a beat whether it is Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche running show. The defense is just as fortified with Coleman and Christmas as it is with C.J. Fair and Baye Moussa Keita.
Last season’s team was a team in every sense of the word. But, this year’s version of Boeheim’s Bunch may set a new mark. Conference play may expose some weaknesses or youth. But, from top to bottom, this year’s squad is both young and experienced, tall and fast, skilled and athletic. All of that has led to the Orange singing in perfect harmony, while their lackluster opponents have been left to sing the blues.