After a completely disastrous beginning to the season, Syracuse has turned it around in ACC play and is on the precipice of an NCAA bid.
Syracuse entered the 2016-17 season ranked 19th in the preseason AP poll, but it did not take long for the Orange to fall out of the rankings entirely. By Week 5 (December 5th), Syracuse no longer boasted a number next to its name and by Week 7 it wasn’t even receiving votes.
The reason for this slide out of national relevance? Several inexplicably awful losses. After starting the season 4-0, the Orange dropped six of their next 10 games. Two of those losses were to quality opponents (Wisconsin and South Carolina) but four of those losses were to teams ranked well outside the RPI top-50: Connecticut (RPI 141), Georgetown (RPI 62), St. John’s (RPI 120), and Boston College (RPI 190).
One loss against the RPI 100+ never reflects well on an NCAA tournament resume, let alone multiple losses. Even worse, the best team listed above, Georgetown, is not as good its RPI suggests. The Hoyas are 13-12 overall and 4-8 in the Big East, better only than lowly DePaul. Additionally, the losses to Georgetown and St. John’s were on Syracuse’s home court making the situation all the more embarrassing.
After their loss to Boston College on January 1st, the Orange sat at 8-6, looked completely lost as a team, and appeared to be completely out of the NCAA tournament conversation just one year after an improbable Final Four run.
Then something clicked.
Since that loss on New Year’s Day, Syracuse has won eight of its last 11 games including five in a row and wins against then-top 10 teams Florida State and Virginia. Now Jim Boeheim’s squad is 8-4 in the ACC and in sole possession of fourth place. A four-seed would give the Orange a double-bye in the ACC tournament this March.
But how did Syracuse miraculously turn things around when the season seemed to be imploding? How did it manage to save itself falling from preseason ranked to unequivocally out of tournament contention (like Texas or Connecticut)?
Oddly enough, the Orange have only made minor improvements since losing to Boston College.
In their first 14 games, Syracuse averaged 77.0 points per game. While that number has actually dropped to 76.5 over their next 11, the fact they’ve been able to maintain that threshold against much tougher ACC defenses indicates that they have improved if only a little. Overall, the Orange are shooting 3.3 percent better from the field in that same span. The offense may not be putting up better overall numbers, but it has been more efficient.
One thing Syracuse has been consistently good at all year is shooting the three. Andrew White, Tyler Lydon, and John Gillon are all shooting better than 40.0 percent from deep, and the Orange shoot 39.4 percent from distance as a team, tied for 25th in the nation. They’ve also been shooting better than 40 percent as a team in conference play.
And it’s not that Syracuse picks its spots shooting threes; it puts up triples in large volume. As a unit, the Orange have taken 571 shots from deep so far this season, tied for 88th in the nation. White loves to chuck it up three-point range. His 203 three-point attempts rank 13th in the country among individual players.
Syracuse has also done a good job of taking care of the ball. The Orange average 16.4 assists per game, tied for 40th in the nation, and just 12.1 turnovers per game, tied for 69th. Their 1.36 assist-to-turnover ratio is tied for 27th nationally and fourth in the conference.
The real issue has been the defense. According to KenPom.com, Syracuse ranks 104th in points allowed per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency). It also is tied for 115th in points allowed per game and 199th in rebounds per game. This isn’t something that’s gotten slightly better over time like the offense. It has just been consistently poor.
In their last 11 games, the Orange have seen their points allowed per game shoot up by 7.1 points and the field goal percentage allowed by 6.3 percent. Of course, some of that has to do with the fact that Syracuse has played some impressive offenses since ACC play started — North Carolina, Notre Dame, N.C. State, and Florida State — but it’s also given up a solid amount of points to good but lesser offenses like Clemson, Miami, and Pittsburgh.
Since it starting winning, though, Syracuse has at least played timely defense. Although they still give up the points, in the games they win, the Orange get a couple of stops down the stretch to hold on. The biggest difference for Syracuse in the last month and a half? It has just found ways to win. Sometimes it’s ugly and close, but Boeheim and company have found ways to come out on top.
There is still much work to be done if Syracuse wants to secure a tournament bid. In his most recent Bracketology, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi included Syracuse in his projected bracket for the first time, but only in the ”Last Four Byes” section as an 11th seed.
If Syracuse keeps winning, it’ll get the tournament bid that it covets but thought was lost a little more than a month ago. With six games to go before the ACC tournament, the Orange have three more opportunities to add quality wins when they face Duke at home and Louisville both at home and on the road, and three other wins they have to get against Pittsburgh on the road and Georgia Tech both at home and on the road. It’s not even out of the realm of possibilities that Syracuse wins the ACC regular season. The Orange are one of six teams currently separated by just one game in the loss column atop the standings.
Syracuse’s current resume has them at 58th in RPI, 46th overall according to KenPom.com, 30th in BPI, and 56th in strength of schedule. Those aren’t numbers that will make a team a lock at this stage in the season, but they’re all favorable. The Orange have the 182nd-ranked non-conference strength of schedule and three losses against the RPI 100+, but they also have four wins against the RPI top-50 and two against the RPI top-15.
The Orange are trending up. After a miserable start to the season, they are sitting in contention to make the tournament, and after their run run to the Final Four last season, no one can count out a Jim Boeheim-led team come tournament time. It’s been a weird season in upstate New York, but Syracuse is just a couple wins away from locking up a spot in the Big Dance.
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