The expectations are lower for this year’s Syracuse men’s basketball team than any in recent memory.
The team enters the season having lost 74 percent of the minutes played from a team that failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament the previous year. None of the incoming four true freshmen were ranked in the consensus top 100 by recruiting services, and SU will rely heavily on a transfer from a team that finished 7-23 in the American Athletic Conference.
Perhaps this is a good thing. Syracuse also entered the season unranked in 2009 and 2002, two of the best teams Jim Boeheim has had in his career.
But Carmelo Anthony and Wes Johnson aren’t walking through that door, as they say. If SU is going to exceed expectations this year, it will not only need its cadre of unproven players to show they were vastly underrated coming out of high school, it will almost need to run the table of winnable games.
What is SU’s baseline to exceed? For the last four seasons, I have used a model to predict Syracuse’s winning percentage. It’s a simple regression model based on the previous season’s results, the minutes played lost, the rankings of incoming freshmen, and the number of transfers eligible to play.
The chart below shows the model’s prediction in blue compared to SU’s actual winning percentage.
As you can see, the model predicts Syracuse will win just 55 percent of its games, which corresponds to about 17 wins. As it happens, 17 wins is also the prediction of Ken Pomeroy’s model, which uses a game-by-game analysis.
So what does the Orange need to do to exceed this baseline? I’ve broken games down into categories to show a path to get to 20 wins.
Must-have mid-major wins (8-1)
First, Syracuse needs to take care of business on its home court against mid-major opponents. If the Orange can beat Cornell, Iona, Texas Southern, Oakland, Toledo, Colgate, Buffalo, St. Bonaventure, and Eastern Michigan, that will bank them nine wins.
The most challenging of those games will likely be St. Bonaventure. SU is 24-3 all time against the Bonnies and hasn’t lost since 1981, but Mark Schmidt’s team won 20 games last season and returns senior guards Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley.
In an ideal world, Syracuse would sweep these nine games, but with a young, inexperienced team, at least one slip-up should be expected as the players build chemistry.
Out-of-conference high-major challenges (3-1)
A season after getting swept by former Big East rivals in the non-conference schedule, Syracuse will once again take on Georgetown and Connecticut.
Georgetown will be better because even in Patrick Ewing’s first season the Hoyas couldn’t possibly do worse than last season’s 14-18 campaign that led to John Thompson III’s firing. Connecticut will present similar challenges as last year, and if the team is healthier KenPom predicts the Huskies will finish 9-9 in the AAC.
Syracuse needs to win both these games.
The Orange will also take on Maryland at home in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and preseason top-5 Kansas on a neutral court in the HoopHall Miami Invitational. While Kansas will be one of the more difficult games on SU’s schedule, Maryland should be a winnable game after the Terrapins lost Melo Trimble to the NBA Draft.
If Syracuse can go 3-1 in these out-of-conference challenges, it will position itself well for reaching 20 wins in conference play.
ACC Low-Tier (4-1)
I consider the low-tier of the ACC to consist of Pittsburgh, NC State, and Boston College. Boston College is the highest ranked team of the group in the KenPom rankings at No. 95. The others are outside the top 100.
Happily for Syracuse fans, the Orange plays both Pittsburgh and BC twice for a total of five games. Considering SU’s history on the road against the Panthers and the fact that the Eagles beat Syracuse last season, the Orange is likely to drop one of these games even though they are all winnable.
ACC Mid-Tier (3-3)
I consider the mid-tier of the ACC to consist of Clemson (#47 in KenPom), Wake Forest (#57), Georgia Tech (#44), Virginia Tech (#53), and Florida State (#55). Wake Forest is the only home-and-home matchup in the group.
These are the types of teams that last season Syracuse showed it could run out of the gym when it played well (see SU’s 90-61 drubbing of Georgia Tech the last game of the season) and lose to if it had a down game (see the Orange’s defeat to Yellow Jackets just two weeks prior). If we assume Syracuse wins its home games and falls on the road, it will emerge from this tier 3-3.
ACC High-Tier (2-5)
Last but not least, the top-tier of the ACC this season includes the usual suspects: Duke (most commentators’ preseason No. 1), Virginia (#9 in KenPom), Louisville (#16 in KenPom, despite the FBI upheaval), and North Carolina (#13). It also includes Miami and Notre Dame, both of which should in and out of the top-25 throughout the season.
This will be a challenging set of games. SU must play Virginia twice, and four of the seven total games will be on the road.
Whether in the old Big East or the ACC, even in its down years Syracuse always seems to pull off upsets against top teams in conference. Last year it was Duke and Virginia. The season prior it was Duke again. In 2015 the Orange knocked off both Louisville and a top-10 Notre Dame team.
If SU can win just one game in seven tries against this group, Syracuse will need to run the table against its mid-major slate to have a chance for 20 wins. If it wins more than one – say home games against Notre Dame and North Carolina – it will have a good chance of giving Boeheim his 32nd 20-win season.
Prediction: 20-11 – Syracuse exceeds expectations and once again finds itself on the bubble sweating it out on Selection Sunday.