It’s easy to look back at the Syracuse men’s basketball season thus far and imagine how the team could already have 20 wins and be firmly on the inside of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The Orange were an Oshae Brissett open layup from beating St. Bonaventure. SU had numerous chances in two overtimes to steal a road win from Florida State. Syracuse also blew an opportunity to beat Notre Dame without its two best players.
And that list doesn’t include close losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, two of the bottom three teams in the ACC.
If only Syracuse had a little offense to complement its stellar defense, which ranks No. 11 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, it would be a great team.
In fact, if you combined last year’s adjusted offensive efficiency with this year’s defense it yields an adjusted efficiency margin of 21.6, which would rank Syracuse No. 14 in the country.
But all things considered, this Syracuse team is where we thought it would be at this point in the season (or at least where you should have thought it would be). If anything, Jim Boeheim’s young group has exceeded expectations.
In my prediction article published in November, I forecast 20 wins for the Orange. KenPom’s model projected 17 wins. The outlook from a panel of six Post Standard writers ranged from 17 to 20 wins with an average of 18.
With a record of 17-8, Syracuse has already matched some of these projections. But the Orange’s schedule is brutal down the stretch with five Tier A opponents and one Tier B, according to KenPom’s system that adjusts the tier based on the game’s location.
It’s possible Syracuse could lose out the rest of the regular season, but the most likely outcome is Boeheim will achieve his 38th 20-win season before the ACC Tournament. This is the current prediction of KenPom’s model, and it fits the path I laid out in November for how Syracuse could reach 20 wins.
Below are my original predictions for each “Tier” of opponent, along side Syracuse’s actual results and what the team still needs to accomplish.
Must-have mid-major wins (Predicted: 8-1, Actual: 8-1)
This group included Cornell, Iona, Texas Southern, Oakland, Toledo, Colgate, Buffalo, St. Bonaventure, and Eastern Michigan. As expected, the Bonnies proved to be the most difficult mid-major and were the Orange’s sole blemish.
Out-of-conference high-major challenges (Predicted: 3-1, Actual: 3-1)
This group included Georgetown, Connecticut, Kansas, and Maryland. The Jayhawks were expected to be SU’s toughest non-conference opponent, and that proved to be the case.
ACC Low-Tier (Predicted: 4-1, Actual: 3-0, 2 games remaining)
This group included Pittsburgh, NC State, and Boston College. The Orange has swept the season series from Pitt and beaten the Eagles at home.
To reach the predicted total, Syracuse will have to salvage a split between today’s home game against NC State and a road game against BC in two weeks. Defeating the Eagles at Conte Forum will be significant challenge, making today’s game against NC State all the more important.
ACC Mid-Tier (Predicted: 3-3, Actual: 2-3, 1 game remaining)
This group included (with pre-season KenPom ranking in parentheses): Clemson (#47), Wake Forest (#57), Georgia Tech (#44), Virginia Tech (#53), and Florida State (#55).
Clemson exceeded expectations (currently ranked #16) and would have been placed in the High Tier if I had created these groupings today. Meanwhile, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech have struggled more than predicted this season and would have ended up in the Low Tier.
Regardless, Syracuse is on track to meet expectations for this group if it can knock off Clemson in the Carrier Dome in the final game of the regular season. That will be a tall order, so the Orange could make up the slack by beating both BC and NC State in the Low Tier.
ACC High-Tier (Predicted: 2-5, Actual: 1-3, 3 games remaining)
This group included Duke, Virginia, Louisville, North Carolina, Miami, and Notre Dame. SU missed its chance to reach the predicted two victories by beating an undermanned Fighting Irish squad, but it still has three more chances to get its second win against this tier.
None of those games will be easy. The Orange faces Duke and Miami on the road. Although Syracuse has beaten Duke in each of the last two seasons, winning at Cameron Indoor will be the toughest test of the season for the Orange. SU hasn’t played at Miami since 2016 when it lost to the Hurricanes by 13. This year the ‘Canes have only lost at home once.
Barring an upset in those two games, it leaves a home matchup against the Tar Heels. After an unexpectedly slow start in conference play, UNC has won four straight, including a victory over archrival Duke.
Winning one of these three games will be a significant challenge, but Syracuse has had at least one top-20 upset victory in each of the last 3 seasons.