For a No. 1 seed, Orange have big flaws
Jim Boeheim probably would roll his eyes at this. Maybe he’d sneak a sigh in there, too.
But America’s whiniest coach has gotten another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And this time, for the sake of his legacy, he’d better do something with it.
Boeheim doesn’t like that kind of talk, the legacy stuff. Just garbage spewing from the noise machine. That’s fine. He’s earned the right to dismiss any and all nitpicking of his record. He’s got 887 wins and a national title. The job he did with this Syracuse team might be his best work ever.
Which is precisely why I have this nagging feeling Boeheim is about to pull another Boeheim in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse is 31-2, won the Big East outright by three games and has the easiest path to the Final Four of any No. 1 seed. But I’ve watched this team and watched this team some more. And if there ever were a regular-season juggernaut that seems primed for another patented Syracuse flop, it’s this one.
It’s not like this is new territory for Boeheim. Two years ago his Syracuse team earned a No. 1 seed and flamed out against Butler in the Sweet 16. In 2006, the No. 5-seeded Orange were bounced by No. 12 Texas A&M. In 2005, Syracuse lost its first game to Vermont as a No. 4 seed.
Any coach who’s been in 28 NCAA tournaments is bound to get upset a time or two. It happens. But it’s happened a lot to Boeheim. Like in 1991 when Richmond became the first No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 seed, something that’s happened only three times since. Or how about in 1988, when No. 11 seed Rhode Island knocked out the Orange in the second round? Or 1986, when David Robinson and Navy pulled off a huge upset against a Pearl Washington-led team that won the Big East?
For someone whose program has sustained excellence over parts of four decades, it’s fairly stunning Boeheim has coached in the Elite Eight only four times. And within that context, there’s a lot riding on this Syracuse team booking his fifth trip.
All season the popular narrative nationally has been that Kentucky and Syracuse are at a level above the rest of college basketball. I’ve never bought into that. It’s really been Kentucky and everyone else.
Yes, Syracuse has compiled an incredible record, especially given less-than-ideal circumstances surrounding this season. Longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine, a lifelong Boeheim friend, was fired in November after child-molestation allegations surfaced. A recent Yahoo! Sports report brought to light an NCAA inquiry about how the program handled multiple positive drug tests. Big man Fab Melo missed a stretch of games in January because of academic issues. And the Orange did nothing but win.
But the record Syracuse compiled has hidden its flaws, and they are obvious. Out of 345 Division I teams, Syracuse ranks 341st in defensive rebounding percentage. That’s not just a blemish, it’s an open wound that hasn't closed all season. Syracuse does not rebound. Not at all. And guess what? The teams it might play in the second round — Kansas State or Southern Miss — rank seventh and 43rd, respectively, in offensive rebounding.
Syracuse’s record was inflated by playing 13 of its first 14 games either at home or in the friendly environs of Madison Square Garden. The Big East, despite getting nine NCAA tournament bids, also was undeniably down this year. Syracuse only won four games against tournament-bound teams away from the Carrier Dome and won them by a total of 26 points. And when a typical rebounding night for Syracuse met a bad shooting night away from home, what you got was a 71-68 loss to Cincinnati in the Big East tournament Friday.
There’s a lot to like about this Orange team: an experienced if not flashy point guard, a ton of depth on the wings, a lot of scoring options all over the court. Syracuse does a great job controlling the interior with Boeheim’s patented matchup zone, and this team clearly knows how to win close games.
But Syracuse isn’t as good as its record or its ranking. It hasn’t been all season. And teams like that often get exposed in the NCAA tournament.
If that happens again as a No. 1 seed, what does it portend for Boeheim in what might be his last go-round as Syracuse’s coach? Boeheim is 67 and doesn’t sound like someone ready to retire, but he always has left open the possibility that the end could come quickly. Regardless, he won’t get many more chances to correct the only major flaw on his résumé.
He probably won’t get a better chance, either. Syracuse has no major obstacles in its way until at least the Elite Eight, when it could face Ohio State or a suddenly surging Florida State. A loss to Kansas State in the second round, or even potentially Vanderbilt or Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, would be nothing short of a disaster for this team.
Boeheim has done a fantastic job this year, perhaps even overachieved. As a reward, the NCAA has given him a manageable draw and another No. 1 seed. After so many years and so many wins, Boeheim doesn’t need much. But he needs one more deep run, if for no other reason than to even the scales a bit. Another perceived choke at this point would be awfully heavy.