Following Syracuse’s narrow escapes over Pittsburgh and North Carolina State last week, a new narrative has emerged to describe the Orange’s best start in school history. SU has been lucky. The Orange shouldn’t be undefeated. Perhaps Florida is the nation’s best team.
Certainly, Syracuse has won its fair share of close games. And certainly if the team continues to play games decided in the final 20 seconds, it will inevitably lose. But Syracuse has not been the beneficiary of an extraordinary amount of luck, and there are good reasons why the Orange is undefeated 25 games into the season.
Let’s start by considering the moment when Syracuse was most likely to lose. At what point during the SU’s two thrilling comeback victories would you say defeat was most likely?
Was it the moment after Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna sank two free throws to put the Panthers up 56-55 with 4.4 seconds left? Or was it after Tyler Ennis was called for an offensive foul with 15 seconds remaining against NC State, giving the ball back to the Wolfpack with a 1-point lead?
According to the win-probability graphs produced by Kenpom.com, neither of these plays marked the point of longest odds for the Orange. That point came with 1:56 left against Pittsburgh and the Orange down 54-48. The Orange had just a 6.1 percent chance of winning.
By comparison, as Ennis inbounded the ball with 4.4 seconds left, Syracuse had a greater than 35 percent chance of winning. Following Ennis’s charge against NC State, SU had a 33 percent chance of winning.
As exciting as the subsequent game-winning plays were, the probability of Syracuse coming up with something like them was not astronomically low. And from Ennis shaking Pittsburgh defenders to get off an uncontested 35-footer to the team’s effective traps in the waning moments against NC State, Syracuse made the plays it needed to cash in on those chances and remain undefeated. There is nothing lucky about that.
Outside of the last two games, Syracuse’s season has not been especially lucky. According to KenPom’s game-by-game efficiency ratings, Syracuse would have been expected to lose about 1 game thus far.
This measure of Syracuse’s “luck” – a winning percentage 4.3 percent higher than expected – ranks the Orange as the 87th luckiest team in the country. Florida, the team that poached one of Syracuse’s first-place votes in this week’s AP poll, has actually been slightly luckier than Syracuse with a winning percentage 4.4 percent greater than expected.
So if in-game luck does not explain Syracuse’s historic start, what does? Perhaps the biggest factor is a different kind of luck: scheduling.
Syracuse has played six true road games this season, and last Wednesday’s game at Pittsburgh was the only one against a team in the KenPom top 30. By comparison, Arizona and Florida have played four such games, and Duke has played two. The other AP-top-5 team to play just one is not coincidentally the only other undefeated team: Wichita State.
Syracuse’s upcoming road games against Duke and Virginia will add two more games to this category. If Syracuse loses these games, some will say that luck has finally caught up to the Orange. But that is a fallacy.
Syracuse losing more difficult games does not mean that its previous wins were lucky. As Ken Pomeroy points out in an insightful post explaining the underrepresented influence of home-court advantage in college basketball rankings, even the best team in the country will often be expected to lose on the road to another highly ranked team. Syracuse is no different and was actually a Vegas underdog against Pittsburgh.
At the end of the day, Syracuse, Florida, and the other top teams are separated by a slim margin. The Orange has emerged as one of the season’s top teams not because of its undefeated record but because of the way it has played in those games.
Syracuse’s cool play under pressure is not a coincidence. The team ranks in the top 20 in minimizing turnovers and possesses the 8th most efficient offense in the country.
Likewise, the turnovers the Orange forced at the end of the NC State game did not happen in a vacuum. Syracuse ranks as the 12th best defense at forcing turnovers.
Most importantly, SU has proven time and time again that it can win games while one of its top players has an off night. The win over NC State was the most recent example, as Rakeem Christmas contributed a career-high 14 points while the other four starters combined for their worst shooting night of the season.
That is not luck. It is versatility. And whether the Orange enters the NCAA Tournament undefeated or with several losses, it will make Syracuse a very tough out on the route to a Championship.