Orange Watch: Syracuse likely to face familiar foes in future NCAA Tournaments

Syracuse center Paschal Chukwu
Syracuse center Paschal Chukwu goes up for a layup against Duke. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

Item: It’s already occurred three times since Syracuse joined the ACC for the 2013-14 sports seasons, playing a fellow conference team in the NCAA Tournament. That’s the same number of times that occurred for SU in 34 years as a Big East member. SU played Virginia in the Midwest Regional final in 2016 followed by North Carolina in the national semifinals at the Final Four, and Duke in the Sweet 16 in 2018, going 1-2 in those games. With Duke and North Carolina virtually annual national title contenders, and the numerous other strong program that abound, there’s likely no escaping an ACC rival in the quest for a future national championship.

Syracuse didn’t even have a chance to play the “what if?’ game in this year’s rare one-and-done NCAA basketball appearance (the last time SU was bounced as quickly occurred in the 2006 first round loss to Texas A&M at Jacksonville, current assistant coach Gerry McNamara’s final game as an Orange player) in last week’s opening round defeat to Baylor in Salt Lake City.

Defeating No. 1 seed Gonzaga was a long shot to propel the Orange to the West Regional in Anaheim this Thursday night, and a potential Sweet 16 meeting with ACC mate Florida State, the regional semifinal matchup that will take place between the Zags and Seminoles instead.

A Syracuse run would have marked the second straight year the ‘Cuse would have faced one of its conference brethren familiar with attacking the zone and the Orange offense in that round of the tournament following the Duke defeat last year, and it’s a trend that is unlikely to end anytime soon.

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Over the past six seasons since SU joined the ACC, an average of seven conference teams made the tournament each year. Simple mathematics as teams from the same league advance and a rule change in 2011 when the tournament expanded from 64 to 68 teams with the four play-in games, allowed the selection committee the flexibility to bracket teams from the same conference that could meet as early as the Round of 32.

That’s exactly what occurred this season as Michigan State advanced over Minnesota last weekend in the second round, the first time two teams from the Big Ten met in an NCAA Tournament game since 2000 when Wisconsin and Michigan State clashed in the national semifinals.

It was the same scenario that had Syracuse meeting Big East mate Marquette in the Round of 32 in 2011, a year in which a whopping 11 Big East teams went dancing, falling in clunky finish late to the Golden Eagles at Cleveland, before getting revenge against MU two years later in the East Regional final at Washington to advance to the Final Four in the final year as a Big East member.

The highlight of Syracuse meeting another Big East team in the NCAA Tournament was the 1987 win over Providence at the Final Four in New Orleans, a matchup that could have been Georgetown had the Friars not upset the heavily favored Hoyas in the Southeast Regional title game a week before.

That might have been problematic for the Orangemen to get to the title game against Indiana because Georgetown had SU’s number in ’87, winning the two regular season games by a total of three points, one in OT, then by 10 points in the Big East Tournament title game.

There was a somewhat similar scenario in the championship-winning season of 2003. Syracuse was bracketed to potentially meet Connecticut at the Final Four in the national semifinals, but the Huskies fell to Texas in the South Regional semifinals, and UT beat Michigan State to advance to face the Orange. UConn had owned SU that season, winning by 14 at Storrs and by 13 in the Big East Tournament semifinals.

Going into the 2020s, there’s the likes of the Blue Devils, Carolina Blue, UVA and the ‘Ville to contend with, and the likelihood they’re going to be a hurdle in certain future seasons to achieve Orange title aspirations.

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Brad Bierman
About Brad Bierman 579 Articles
Now in his fifth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.