On Friday night in the Big East Tournament semifinals, Cincinnati handed Syracuse its first loss since Jan. 21 at Notre Dame and just its second setback of the season.
Even with the loss, Syracuse concluded one of the most dominant seasons in Big East history, finishing at 31-2 (17-2). Syracuse is only the third team ever to finish Big East play with just two losses—a fact that bodes well for NCAA Tournament success. The two other teams to post such a record in the conference made it to the finals of the NCAA Tournament, with one of those teams – the 1998-99 UConn Huskies – winning it all.
Despite his team’s success and Friday night’s loss, coach Jim Boeheim knows that the NCAA tournament—where SU is nearly a lock for a No. 1 seed when the brackets are released Sunday night—is what it all comes down to.
“The tournament that starts next week is the only one that matters,” Boeheim said following Friday's loss. “Nothing else matters anymore in college basketball. It doesn’t matter that you win 31 games. It doesn’t matter that you win your conference tournament.
“The way college basketball is now, whoever you are, whether you’re VCU or Syracuse, the only thing that matters is how you do in the tournament. We know that, and we’re going to be prepared for that.”
Boeheim pointed out that when the 2003 Syracuse team won the national championship, it lost—you guessed it—in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. In fact, the 2003 NCAA tournament was the last time Syracuse advanced beyond the Sweet 16.
If SU fails to make the Elite Eight this year, then this season will be deemed a failure despite 30 regular season wins. Since nothing else matters but the NCAA Tournament, according to Boeheim, it’s only fair to hold him and his team accountable for such a statement.
“Winning the Big East don’t mean nothing at all,” said Dion Waiters, who led Syracuse in the loss to Cincinnati with a career-high 28 points. “We’re trying to win the NCAA Tournament. That’s the main focus.”
Get the picture yet? It’s Final Four or bust for Syracuse this year.
While winning the Big East Tournament might not matter to them, how the Orange played in the tournament raises cause for concern.
Syracuse survived a scare from rival UConn in the quarterfinals mainly due to a subpar shooting performance by the Huskies, who shot 34.4 percent for the game. SU trailed 39-31 with 13:40 left but rallied back as it's managed to do all year. Being the better team in the game’s final 10 minutes has been the difference for Syracuse in any number of close contests this season.
“The only game we lost wasn’t close,” Boeheim said. “Every game we’ve won has been close.”
The ability to close games out and put teams away is crucial to success in the NCAA Tournament. Yet, SU faithful should prepare for some heart-stopping moments in the weeks ahead.
In the semifinals, Cincinnati jumped out to a 34-17 lead behind 8-of-10 shooting from three-point range, with four of these threes coming from Sean Kilpatrick. When Cincinnati’s shooters cooled off, Syracuse went on a second-half run and pulled to within one before losing 71-68. On Friday night, a poor start and a 17-point deficit proved too great overcome.
In both Big East Tournament games a common thread has been the poor play of senior leaders Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine. Against UConn, Joseph and Jardine combined for 12 points on 2-of-14 shooting. Joseph, who scored 10 points, made his lone field goal late in the second half. Jardine played just 18 minutes and sat for most of the second half. Against Cincinnati, the two combined for just 15 points, giving way for Waiters to take the big shots.
“The one thing that stands out to me is when we’ve played well, Scoop and Kris have been there for us,” Boeheim said. “They are the two seniors who have to take you forward.”
Jardine’s poor play stretches back to the senior day win against Louisville, when he failed to score for the second-straight game against the Cardinals.
Sophomore forward C.J. Fair, who averages 8.6 points per game, scored just two points in each Big East Tournament game but grabbed 11 rebounds against Cincinnati.
Also worrisome for Syracuse was its struggles in the half-court offense against Cincinnati. UC played an active 2-3 zone, often forcing SU to settle for outside shots. Syracuse managed just two fast break points in the game. Cincinnati forced Syracuse to play its style and might’ve laid the blueprint to beating the fast-paced Orange.
Big East Tournament play aside, Syracuse is poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament beginning next Thursday.
“We’ve got an extra day now, an extra two days to go back and work on those things, so hopefully we will be able to get better,” Boeheim said.