Here’s a thought—do fast starts to a season, in recent Syracuse history, indicate success in the NCAA tournament? Or is it all a mirage, and do the real games not matter until later on in the season?
Let’s take a look at the last seven seasons.
For a five-year stretch, which began my freshman year in 2009, all Syracuse did was win when it opened the basketball season. Sometimes it was surprising (2009, 2013), other times expected (2010, 2011). In 2009, the Orange started 13-0. In 2010, 18-0. 2011? 20-0. Yeah, that one was fun. 2012 was a 10-0 start. And 2013 was 25-0.
In fact, the classes of 2013 and 2014 (for those players who stayed through their senior year), were two of the winningest classes in Syracuse basketball history.
Now, here’s how those teams finished out their seasons in the NCAA tournament. The 2009-2010 squad made it to the Sweet 16. In 2011, the Orange lost in the second round. In 2012, it made it to the Elite 8. 2013 was a Final Four season, and 2014 was a second-round exit.
So, technically, the team with the fewest wins to open the season made it the farthest. And the team in that span with the most wins to start a season tied for the earliest NCAA tournament exit during that span.
In comparison, the past three years have been different. In 2014, SU lost in its third game of the season. Last year, Cuse’s first loss came in its seventh game. And this year, of course, it came in its fifth game.
The 2014-2015 season was a bit of a wash because the team banned itself from the NCAA tournament. But it likely wasn’t going to make it there anyway. Last year’s team, meanwhile, lost relatively early on (compared to the preceding seasons) and made it to the Final Four anyway. The team became the poster child for “schools people hate because they didn’t deserve to make the Final Four!”
Now, there’s not as much data for these slower starts in comparison to the 2009-2013 stretch. But I’m curious to see how this year’s team responds to early losses. I think it could take a page out of last year’s squad and get hot at the right time.
Because that’s really the big picture here—getting hot at the right time, which may not be the beginning of the season. Both of SU’s recent Final Four teams—2013 and 2016—made their runs to the final weekend because they got hot when it mattered most. For last year’s team, that was the tourney. For the 2013 team, it started in the Big East tournament after a disappointing end to the regular season.
Now, the 2009-2010 and 2011-2012 teams are two of my favorites, and neither made the Final Four. They simply had astounding regular-season success.
But when it’s all said and done, there’s something to be said for winning when it matters most. So sure, the regular season is important for building a resume, but you still have to win in crunch time—March and April.