This Syracuse season has been a dream so far but it will become a nightmare if Syracuse suffers another early exit at the hand of a lesser team.
Remember SU hasn’t surpassed tournament expectations since 2003 when they won the title.
2004: #4 seed lost in Sweet 16 to #8 seed Alabama
2005: #4 seed lost in first round to #13 Vermont
2006: #5 seed lost in first round to #12 Texas A&M
2007: missed tournament
2008: missed tournament
2009: #3 seed lost in Sweet 16 to #2 Oklahoma
2010: #1 seed lost in Sweet 16 to #5 Butler
2011: #3 seed lost in second round to #11 Marquette
That’s 8 years, 6 of them would have to be considered major disappointments.
Here’s why this year could be another one of them:
Fab Melo. That selfish idiot went and got himself deemed ineligible; reportedly he didn’t do his own schoolwork. I’m pissed because this nearly ruins all chances SU has to win the national title. And really makes it difficult to even get to the Final Four. But I am sad for guys like Scoop and Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters. They have seemingly done everything the right way and now this moron costs them a chance to do something really special. Very selfish.
Rebounding. The team’s biggest flaw is about to get even worse. Syracuse grabs only about 60% of opponents’ misses, among the worst in the country. Part of this is the zone defense which requires the man defending the middle of the zone to step up and guard a shooter at the free throw line. That forces the wing players to be the rebounders, and they’re often not in position because of their zone responsibilities.
Relying on players who have barely played. Even in this year when Boeheim has used more players than ever, he still doesn’t have experienced fall-back options for Melo. Baye Moussa Keita fouls at an absurdly high rate. Rakim Christmas usually starts and makes a mistake at which point Boeheim benches him and never puts him back in the game. James Southerland uses his long arms to great affect on defense, but he’s often too overzealous going for blocks and steals. And he’s a major liability on offense because all he does is shoot, and he only makes about 20% of his 3-point attempts.
Shooting. This is one area where they may actually be improving. After a horrible stretch in the middle of the season, Triche, Joseph and especially Dion Waiters have found their touch. But SU still lacks one consistent 3-pointer shooter who can spot up and nail treys.
Coaching. Quite frankly Jim Boeheim has the worst tournament record of any major college coach. He has 3 runs to the Final Four and one title which cover up an otherwise abysmal tournament record. This is the 29th NCAA tournament under Jim Boeheim. They have only been to the Elite 8 4 times. One out of 7. And of the 7 years (this is number 8) when Syracuse was a #1 or #2 seed they only made the Elite 8 twice, 1987 & 1989.
But there are still a lot of reasons to be hopeful:
Talent. There are still a lot of good players on this team. By the most conservative estimate there are four players better and more valuable to the team than Melo (Jardine, Joseph, Triche and Waiters) still playing and ready to go.
Defense. I normally hate the 2-3 defense because of its deficiencies but this group plays it exceptionally well. When Waiters and Triche are on top they force a lot of turnovers leading to a lot of easy baskets. This should continue, even without Fab Melo.
Clutch. This team is not 31-2 by accident. They played a lot of close games down the stretch and won them all because they know how to make plays, especially on defense, to win games.
In order to get to the Final Four Syracuse will have to climb over the following obstacles:
UNC-Asheville: Despite the absence of Melo, there is just no way I can see Syracuse being the first 1 seed to lose a first round game to a 16.
Southern Mississippi or Kansas State: A lot of people are worried about Kansas State because of their rebounding but I think Southern Miss could be equally as tough. But again, even without Melo, this should definitely be a victory.
Vanderbilt or Wisconsin: Wisconsin is always tough and well coached and they play a slowdown style which often frustrates opponents. But I think SU just has too many good athletes to lose to Wisconsin.
Vanderbilt is a much more interesting match-up. People are hot on them because they won the SEC tournament. Sometimes that helps, like Connecticut last year, other teams peak too soon and have nothing left, Syracuse 2006 being one example. That much is impossible to predict. Remember though, Vanderbilt lost in the first round, the last three times it was in the tournament all as a 4 or 5 seed. Maybe Harvard will give them a game.
But if not, Vanderbilt can give Syracuse fits. They are a very strong offensive team with good outside shooting from John Jenkins (45%) and Jeffery Taylor (43%). And in 6-11 255 lb Festus Ezeli Vanberbilt has someone who can make Syracuse pay on the offensive glass. But Vanderbilt does not play tough defense and Syracuse could beat them in a track meet.
Florida State: Obviously a lot would have to happen for an SU-FSU match-up in the Sweet 16 but it's an interesting game to ponder. Florida State is the opposite team of Vanderbilt, instead of a team of gunners, they are a team of tough defenders. Other than Michael Snaer who hit 3 game winning shots this season, there aren't any big offensive threats. But Bernard James, Snaer and others play incredible defense and could force Syracuse into a slowdown game. FSU is also on a roll having won the ACC tournament, becoming the first team to beat Duke and North Carolina twice each in the same season.
Ohio State: The other likely Elite 8 possibility. I don't see Syracuse having an answer for Jared Sullinger inside. But the inexperienced Buckeyes have lost a lot of games they should have won this season by making the wrong play at the wrong time.