What is the path for Syracuse basketball to get to the NCAA Tournament?

There's still plenty of basketball to go
There’s still plenty of basketball to go

Syracuse’s season is not going great. This much we know.

Even with Coach Boeheim returning to the sideline in Saturday’s tilt against No. 6 North Carolina, the Orange has its work cut out to get back to the Big Dance. Here’s how SU could do it.

First, let’s take stock of where the team is. Syracuse has fallen beyond mention in the “Next Four Out” in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology projection. It is ranked 74th in the RPI with the 72nd best strength of schedule, a number that will improve as conference play continues. The Orange fares slightly better in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings at No. 69.

This is actually not too far from preseason projections. Before the season, many predicted the Orange would finish with between 18-22 wins, implying 11-13 losses. At 10-6, SU is trending toward the bottom end of that range but it is hardly out of reach. It only feels worse than it is because the Battle for Atlantis raised expectations by several pegs – that and the terrible loss to St. John’s (RPI No. 186).

Syracuse has yet to be blown out of a game. This team will be competitive regardless of the opponent. Ironically, the only loss that was not winnable inside 3 minutes remaining was St. John’s.

So what does Syracuse need to do to overcome such a bad loss? It’s actually not as much as you might think. Lunardi’s current “Last Team In” is Monmouth, which has two losses that are just as bad to Canisius (RPI No. 176) and Army (RPI No. 191). The reason Monmouth would be in the Tournament is its four quality wins: at UCLA, USC, Notre Dame, and at Georgetown.

Syracuse has just two quality wins thus far in Connecticut and Texas A&M. UConn is actually ranked below Syracuse in the RPI at No. 94 but remains at No. 34 in the KenPom. The Aggies will likely remain a top-20 team throughout the season.

Over the remaining 15 games, Syracuse needs to add 2-3 more high quality wins to this list while also winning most of the games in which it is favored. We can divide these into three tiers:

Tier 1 – Resume-maker wins – 5 chances
Vs. North Carolina (RPI #7)
At Duke (RPI #14)
At Virginia (RPI #10)
At Louisville (RPI #24)
At North Carolina (RPI #7)

Of these, Ken Pomeroy’s model gives Syracuse the best shot (33 percent) this Saturday at home against the Tar Heels. But even given Pomeroy’s meager odds for the difficult road games (none higher than 12 percent), it leaves a 58 percent chance that Syracuse will win one of these resume-makers and even a better than 1-in-3 chance of taking one of the road games. If Syracuse can ride the emotional wave from Boeheim’s return to beat Carolina and steal one road win against a top 25 team, it will leave the Orange in great position for the NCAAs.

» Related: Realizations on Syracuse basketball’s 0-3 ACC start

Tier 2 – Good wins – 7 chances
At Wake Forest (RPI #59)
Vs. Notre Dame (RPI #53)
Vs. Georgia Tech (RPI #55)
Vs. Florida State (RPI #92)
Vs. Pittsburgh (RPI #30)
Vs. NC State (RPI #78)
At Florida State (RPI #92)

Joe Lunardi currently places Notre Dame, Florida State, and Pittsburgh in the Tournament and adds Wake Forest as the first team out. The good news for the Orange is that many of these games are at home. Pomeroy’s model expects the Orange to go 4-3, falling to Wake Forest and Florida State on the road and Notre Dame at home.

If the Orange can exceed the model’s projections and make it through these teams at 5-2, SU’s tournament chances will be in good shape regardless of who the wins are against. Many of these teams may be better than their RPI indicates, as they are ranked higher in Pomeroy’s model. Whether the Orange needs to win four or five games in this stretch depends on whether it can manage two wins against the top tier teams and if it falls to any of the bottom feeders in Tier 3.

Tier 3 – Must wins – 3 chances

Vs. Boston College (RPI #194)
Vs. Virginia Tech (RPI #107)
At Boston College (RPI #194)

A loss to either BC or Virginia Tech would be devastating to Syracuse’s chances. Boston College is worse than St. John’s. Virginia Tech, despite starting ACC play strong with victories over NC State and Virginia, is a team the Orange will need to beat at home if they have any chance at the tournament. The Hokies lost earlier this season to Alabama State.

The Path

Syracuse is currently 10-6. It needs to reach approximately 19-12 with two additional high quality wins to have any shot at the NCAAs without a deep run in the ACC Tournament. How does SU get there?

Let’s assume Syracuse sweeps the Tier 3 teams. That brings the record to 13-6.

The Orange has the potential to beat any of the Tier 2 teams. It proved that by winning the first 36 minutes against Pitt, Miami, and Clemson. But it could also lose to any Tier 2 team, as it also proved in its first three league games. Let’s say the Orange wins one of
the two road games and four of the five home games. That gets SU to 18-8 with high quality wins against two of Florida State, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.

Even if Syracuse steals just one win against the top tier teams, it brings SU’s record to 19-12 and a likely NCAA Tournament birth. Before you scoff and dismiss any chance of Syracuse beating a top-tier team this season, remember that this team has yet to be blown out. They were also missing their Hall of Fame head coach for five of their six losses.

The NCAA Tournament is far from out of reach.

For more Syracuse coverage, Like our Facebook page and follow us @TheJuiceOnline.

About Jeff Irvine 107 Articles
Jeff has covered Massachusetts Minutemen basketball for The Maroon and White and The Daily Hampshire Gazette. He has also written for The Daily Orange. Jeff is an Amherst, Massachusetts native, and graduated from Syracuse University in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyirvine.