What is Syracuse basketball’s path to the NCAA Tournament?

Syracuse is very much alive in the NCAA Tournament chase
Syracuse is very much alive in the NCAA Tournament chase

A lot can change in three weeks.

Three weeks ago, Syracuse was flailing at 0-3 in ACC play after losing in overtime to Clemson and Jim Boeheim was reacquainting himself with his team. Now, the team has won three of four to climb to 3-5 in conference play and 13-8 overall with a win over a ranked Duke team added to their resume.

In fact, hopes seem to have shifted from “hopefully, they’ll get to host an NIT game” to “maybe they can get an NCAA bid after all”. And this change seems pretty legitimate when you do some digging into the numbers.

In Monday’s Bracketology at ESPN.com, Joe Lunardi has the Orange creeping toward an NCAA bid. The team just made the cut in his “next four out” group last week, meaning they were the eighth-best team not in the bracket at that time. Add on a road win at Duke and a road loss at Virginia and SU has crept up to the front of that “next four out” group, meaning they are the fifth-best team looking in.

CBS Sports did not have Syracuse in their first four out in their most recent list, but the loss at Virginia made SB Nation nudge the Orange out of their brackets and down to second among their “first four out”. Another site relying on mathematics projects SU to finish 18-14 and give them a 23% chance at the dance, but USA Today has them going to Dayton for a play-in game as the last team in the tournament.

Google can send you to more and more lists, but the gist is the same: They Orange are firmly on the bubble.

» Related: Syracuse’s three-game win streak ends at Virginia

How can the Orange get a ticket to the dance without going to the box office? You’ll probably just call it winning, but what they really have to do is take advantage of the opportunity their schedule has put in front of them:

Here are SU’s next five games, listed with each opponent’s Sagarin ranking:

  1. Notre Dame – #30
  2. Georgia Tech – #57
  3. Virginia Tech – #92
  4. Florida State – #43
  5. at Boston College – #208

Syracuse is #46 and starting a four-game homestand at home. There will be only about 36 hours between the end of the game against Notre Dame and tip-off against Georgia Tech, but the Orange don’t have to travel. They also get eight days off before the Florida State game.

The toughest team on that list leads it off, but Notre Dame PG Demetrius Jackson is out for Thursday’s game with a hamstring injury. Not only does Jackson lead his team in scoring and assists, he is tenth in the ACC at 16.6 points per game and tied for second in assists at 5.0 per game. He also ranks tenth in field goal percentage and fifth in minutes played. The Irish aren’t going to lay down with Jackson out, but the matchup looks a lot more favorable for the Orange with him in street clothes.

One thing that isn’t promising is that, coming into Tuesday, Syracuse stood ninth in the ACC in points per possession differential at +0.01. In other words, the Orange score one-hundredth of a point more than they allow per possession on the season.

But, here’s the good thing. The teams behind them are Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, NC State, Florida State, Wake Forest, and Boston College. SU has already routed the worst two of those teams and six of their final ten games are against that group. To make that even better, they only travel to Florida State as part of a home-and-home and to BC to finish a series against a team they spanked by 22 at home. The others contests are all at the Dome.

Winning the next five is not impossible. Doing so would get SU to 18 wins and leave them one win shy of finishing .500 in the ACC with NC State at home and Florida State on the road left on their slate. It would also add a more positive spin to their existing resume, which already has some good things on it.

In addition to the win at Duke, the Orange also have a neutral court win in the Bahamas over Texas A&M, who is #5 in the country and 17-2 overall. As much the idea likely makes SU fans ill, they should root for UConn, since SU beat them in the same tournament and wins will only enhance the Huskies’ 14-5 record and residence in the “receiving votes” section of the poll.

SU’s losses to UNC, Miami, and Virginia are all to top 15 teams. The committee has repeatedly said they will take into consideration the Jim Boeheim record vs. the Mike Hopkins record. Losses to Georgetown (12-8 overall) and St John’s (7-13) were under Hopkins (as well as Pitt, Miami, and Clemson).

If you split the schedule up based on who’s coaching, Boeheim is 9-3 with all three of the aforementioned big wins.

So, how does Syracuse enhance that resume by succeeding in these winnable games and maybe even take down another big name?

Be a lot more consistent on offense. Tyler Roberson has been a bit of a whipping boy, partially due to Hopkins saying the team needs “plugged-in Robey” back when he was steering the ship. Roberson, however, is not the only player who needs to step up consistently.

This team three scorers to show up in every game, meaning two more to help out Michael Gbinije. Mr. Everything has scored in double figures in all 21 games of the season, tallying 14 points or more in all but two outings. Gbinije has also left his recent shooting slump behind, making almost 56 percent of his shots in his last four games.

And that is where consistent scoring pretty much ends.

Trevor Cooney has reached double figures 17 times, but has scored 15 or more points only seven times. Even more evidence of his volatile nature is has failed to shoot 40 percent from the field in three consecutive games all season.

Like Cooney, Malachi Richardson has also reached double digits in points 17 times, but is even more “feast or famine”. Richardson has poured in 15 points or more ten times, but scored ten or fewer points a half dozen times.

Roberson falls just shy of reaching double digits in half the team’s games, doing so in 10 contests. However, when he reaches double figures, he excels, posting 14 or more points seven times. He has also seen an uptick in consistent scoring lately, as six of those double-figure efforts have come in the last eight games. Roberson has also made nearly 52 percent of his shots in that time.

How big is getting three double figure scorers? Well, the teams that have kept Syracuse from having that balanced of an attack this season are Wisconsin, Miami, and Virginia. The Orange lost all three games against those defensive-minded teams, scoring 58 (53 before overtime), 51, and 65 points.

The opportunity is there. It remains to be seen if Syracuse will take it.

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About Jim Stechschulte 894 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. He currently resides in Syracuse.