Is this the year?
Now that college basketball season is officially underway, that’s the question on the minds of hoops fans everywhere. Is this the year we win a title. Can we at last make a Final Four run? If this team finally going to make the NCAA tournament? Can we break .500 this year? No matter that team you pull for, you have hopes and goals and expectations. Some are more ambitious than others, but the core question is always the same. Is this the year?
We Syracuse fans have been blessed in that the goals and expectations are high, and rightfully so. Under Jim Boeheim, Orange(man) basketball has been nothing short of solid and has at times bordered on spectacular. While one title in three title game appearances and three Final Fours might pale in comparison to the UCLAs and Kentuckys, it’s still more than most programs achieve in their whole history. Boehiem has crammed all of that into 36 years on the Syracuse bench, turning the program from an also-ran into a perennial conference and national contender.
Yet for all that’s been accomplished under Boeheim’s watch there are still many, even Orange fans, who shy away from labeling Syracuse as an “elite” program. Many don’t think that the fifth all-time winningest program deserves to be put in same category as UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas or UNC. And maybe they’re right. Maybe Syracuse has work to do. So, the question remains. Is this the year?
I’ve long maintained that Syracuse is already among the basketball blue bloods and, if not quite there yet, the program is this close to taking that next step. So, if there is still work to be done, what goals must be met in order to keep the Orange on track for that elite status, if not to make the leap altogether?
1) Win 30 games- Everyone knows the factoid, even casual basketball fans. When it’s just before tip-off and the TV cameras are pointed at Jim Boeheim hunched over in his chair with his hand over his mouth, the announcers’ regurgitation is inevitable: Jim Boeheim has the most 20-win seasons of all time. 34 out of 36. Awesome.
A pretty much guaranteed 20 wins per year is great, but you know what’s better? 30 wins. For Syracuse to lay claim to a spot among the basketball royalty, 30 has to become the new 20. Jim B has done it before. The Orange have won 30 or more fives times under Boeheim, including two of the last three seasons. The most notable ones are the 1986-87 campaign where the Orangemen were a Keith Smart jumpshot away from a title, and 2002-2003 where they rode the skill of Carmelo Anthony and the freakish length of Hakim Warrick to the title that eluded them almost 20 years prior. And that’s not to mention all the times Boeheim has coached his squad to 27, 28, 29 wins. Damn good seasons, even if they didn’t reach that magic number of 30.
Still, you know who has a crapload of 30-wins seasons? Mike Krzyzewski. He’s done it twelve times at Duke. The Kansas Jayhawks have done it eleven times under multiple coaches. Kentucky has done it twelve times, starting in 1946 (when Jim Boeheim was 2-years-old). UCLA has done it eight times. UNC? Ten 30-win seasons. When the words “basketball elite” are uttered, these are the names that immediately come to mind. All of them have reached that magic number more times than Syracuse. Does a sixth 30-win campaign automatically vault Syracuse into that rarefied air? Maybe not, but a second consecutive such season and a third in four years certainly keeps the program on the right track.
2) Make a run to Atlanta- If there’s one point that critics of Syracuse’s quest for elite status all rally to, it’s that the program has only been to three Final Fours. And while a spot in the Final Four has always meant a title game berth under Boeheim, a mere three trips to college basketball’s biggest stage is on the low side for a program that wants to be considered among the upper crust of the sport.
This fact is what fuels the notion that Boeheim and Syracuse can’t win the big games. It provides evidence to those critics that argue Jim B’s 20-win seasons rest largely on the strength of weak out-of-conference schedules filled with the likes of Colgate and St. Bonaventure, early slates that leave the Orange ill-prepared for the Big Dance.
Of late, just pure bad luck has seemed to stop Syracuse from fulfilling its tournament potential. We Syracuse fans know all about the ill-fated 2010 and 2012 NCAA Tournament runs, each squad missing its starting center and defensive anchor. What could’ve (should’ve) been Final Four squads were derailed early.
There’s no saying with any certainty that things would have ended up any differently if Arinze Onuaku or Fab Melo had been manning the middle for their respective teams, but none of that matters. Among the elite of college basketball, success isn’t measured in wins, conference titles or NCAA tournament appearances, all of which Syracuse has in abundance. Final Fours are what matters. Is the reason why Tom Izzo (five Final Fours in 17 years) and his Michigan State Spartans are feared come March Madness and why he and his programs are considered one of the best around, despite not really having done anything of note between 1979 when Magic Johnson led the Spartans to a title and 1995 when Izzo arrived. If the Orange are going to take that next step into elite status, they need to notch more Final Four appearances. There’s no better time than the present to start.
3) Earn a #1 Rank and a #1 Seed- This is much more fluid than the others. It’s based more on anecdotal evidence than anything else. Syracuse has had its time at the top of the pile. They’ve held the #1 ranking at some point two of the last three years, including a school record seven consecutive weeks last season, and have been ranked #1 here and there in the past. The 2010 and 2012 NCAA tournaments saw Syracuse earn two of its three ever #1 seeds. It’s been over the last two or three years that the Orange have been gaining the respect of the powers that be in the college basketball world and are being seen more widely the way we die-hards view them.
Now, of course, when it comes down to it, rankings and seedings don’t really matter. We all know that the rankings simply boil down to, “who hasn’t lost recently”. Indeed, last season the #1 rank fell into Syracuse’s lap when the two teams ranked ahead of them, Kentucky and Ohio State, both lost in the same weekend. There was great debate afterward as critics claimed that Syracuse wasn’t a “true” #1 even after the Orange kept racking up W’s and held the spot for nearly two months. And, as can be expected, when the Orange finally suffered a defeat, they were promptly shuffled down the rankings. So, to put too much stake in rankings is silly.
The same goes for #1 seeds. Just like there is rarely ever a single “best” team in college basketball, there are rarely ever four clear-cut #1 seeds. There are probably six, seven, eight every year worthy of a #1 seed. But there are only four spots on the top row so someone has to be relegated to the second.
Rankings and seedings are all about perception, as is consideration for “elite” status. Every year, it seems to be the same teams hovering around the top of the rankings; Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas. Sure, there are other teams inserted periodically into the mix and Syracuse is among them. The first step toward being perceived as elite is to get consistent recognition at the top of the polls and on the top line of the NCAA tournament bracket. When Syracuse was promoted to #1 last season, we fans were elated and proud. Pride is great. Elation has to go. We shouldn’t be surprised to see a ‘1’ next Syracuse’s name. It shouldn’t be a notable accomplishment. It should be par for the course. The discussion shouldn’t be, “Maybe we can be #1 this year”. It should be, “How in the hell aren’t we ranked #1?”
Syracuse is an elite basketball program. I firmly believe that. The numbers back it up. But earning a spot on the dais with the likes of Duke or Kentucky takes more than that. It takes name recognition. It takes defining moments. It takes that little something extra to sustain the attention of all basketball fans regardless of where they live or who they root for. And it takes a little bit of disdain. It takes a little bit of, “Man, I hate those guys”. That’s what it means to be elite.
So, is this the year?