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Syracuse Rises in March with Runs to Sweet 16 and Beyond

Posted on March 27, 2021 by Chris Kent

Double-digit seeds usually have a short stay in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In fact, only five double- digit seeds have ever reached the Final Four since 1979 when the selection committee began seeding teams. While the intrigue, drama, and excitement of this event is largely built on these lower seeds knocking off their favored counterparts, they typically have been eliminated during the first weekend of play after a win or two if you include the First Four which started in 2011. Not if you are Syracuse.

The Orange have defied the odds. Syracuse has advanced to the Sweet 16 in three of the last five NCAA tournaments as a double-digit seed. The Orange are there this year as a No. 11 seed and will meet No. 2 Houston in the Midwest regional semifinals tonight. Tip-off is set for 9:55 pm EST.

Syracuse has added to the appeal of March Madness over the years based on its’ dramatic play.

While this success is a credit to the coaching of hall-of-fame head coach Jim Boeheim and his heavily capable assistants, it is also Syracuse’s fabled 2-3 zone defense that is a major factor in befuddling opponents as they are not used to it. A proven winner and an elite coach, Boeheim and his assistants do a masterful job of getting the most out of their players and improving during the season. While the Orange have finished anywhere between sixth and 10th in the final ACC regular season standings over the last six seasons, Syracuse is typically on the upswing the last week of the regular season as they head into March.

That is where things have become unclear for the Orange. It has been gut wrenching at times for Orange Nation and exhilarating for the players and coaches. In playing with their backs to the wall down the stretch of recent regular seasons, Syracuse has been faced with crucial or must-win games to improve its’ NCAA chances or in some seasons just to remain on the bubble. Including this season, here is a look at the last three times the Orange have reached the Sweet 16 and how it has evolved.

2020-21

Losing only Elijah Hughes from the year before, Syracuse brought back nearly all of its’ roster in 2020-21. Faced with the challenges and protocols brought on by COVID-19 and playing mostly without fans made for a new environment. Sophomore Joe Girard III and junior Buddy Boeheim – the coach’s son – provided the Orange with a solid backcourt. Boeheim took a step forward, becoming a more well-rounded player capable of handling the ball to help get off his shots and using his 6-6 frame to take advantage of matchups. Girard was not as productive as a freshman as his scoring average dipped from 12.4 points-per-game to 9.7. Inside, Syracuse was without the services of senior center Bourama Sidibe nearly the whole season due to a knee injury. That left the Orange without some size forcing them to lean on 6-7 sophomore forward Quincy Querrier and 6-10 Marek Dolezaj for rebounding. Alan Griffin, a 6-5 junior forward who transferred from Illinois, rounded out the starting five and has contributed 13.7 ppg. Without Sidibe, Syracuse has had to resort to 6-11 sophomore center Jesse Edwards who has contributed late in the season with solid minutes. Edwards had season highs of six points and eight rebounds in the Orange’s crucial win over North Carolina on March 1 and also had eight rebounds in their win over North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament. Syracuse has also gotten good play out of freshman guard Kadary Richmond and sophomore forward Robert Braswell. Richmond has averaged 6.4 ppg in 27 games played while Braswell has averaged 3.9 ppg in 23 appearances.

The Orange were up and down throughout the regular season and struggled to find continuity. Syracuse did not have longer than a three-game winning streak and suffered some big losses this season. A 20-point loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 16 left the Orange wondering what kind of team they were. Although Syracuse won three of its’ next four games, the loss was by 23 at Virginia on Jan. 25 as it missed out on an opportunity for a key win. A 17-point loss at Clemson on Feb. 6 also hurt. Yet the real damage came in late February with back-to-back road losses to Duke and eventual ACC Tournament champion Georgia Tech leaving Syracuse on the outside looking in for an NCAA bid. The losses dropped the Orange to 13-8 and 7-7 in the ACC with two games left in the regular season. Syracuse now faced must win games at home against North Carolina and Clemson, each who they had already lost to this season. The Orange dug deep and came together to win both games. Syracuse held of the Tarheels 72-70 by converting four of six foul shots in the final 1:06. They then beat Clemson 64-54 two days later. They had now avenged losses against two teams that finished ahead of them in the ACC and went to the NCAA Tournament. It was onto the ACC Tournament where the Orange beat North Carolina State in the second round, logging its’ third win over the Wolfpack this season. While Syracuse fell 72-69 on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to top-seeded Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals the next day, they had done enough to survive the NCAA bubble and reach the NCAA field of 68.

After drawing the 11 seed in the Midwest, the Orange faced No. 6 San Diego State in the first round on March 19. The Aztecs were one of the hottest teams in the country as they brought a 14-game winning streak into the contest. The teams exchanged leads during the opening 11 minutes during which neither side lead by more than five points. Then Syracuse asserted itself behind the shooting of junior guard Buddy Boeheim. A jumper by Boeheim with 8:48 to play put the Orange up 19-18 and started a 15-0 run to close the half as Syracuse lead 32-18 at intermission. Boeheim’s bucket gave him 16 of the team’s first 19 points as he finished the first half 6-for-8 from the field including 3-for-3 from 3. Boeheim remained efficient in the second half with 14 points to finish with 30 points on 11-for-15 shooting with a 7-for-10 effort from 3 where he converted one four-point play. Just when the Aztecs had cut the lead to 40-29 and were threatening to get back into the game at the 15:00 mark, Boeheim drained 3-pointers on consecutive possessions pushing the lead to 17 and Syracuse never looked back. The Orange would lead by as many as 27 points during the last 13 minutes and the Aztecs never got closer than 16 points the rest of the way as Syracuse won 78-62. Sophomore point guard Joe Girard III scored 12 points and had seven assists while senior forward Marek Dolezaj added 11 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds.

Buddy Boeheim drives past a West Virginia defender in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Next up was a second round meeting with No. 3 West Virginia and once again it was the shooting of Buddy Boeheim that helped the Orange prevail. Boeheim shot 8-for-17 and 6-for-13 from 3 en route to scoring a game high 25 points as Syracuse won 75-72. The Orange shot 3-for-5 on foul shots in the last 21 seconds and forced West Virginia into a turnover preventing them from getting a game-ending shot off as the final two seconds elapsed. With the victory, the Orange advanced to the Sweet 16 where it awaits its matchup with the Houston Cougars.

2017-18

After ending up in the NIT in 2017, Syracuse set out to make a return to the big dance in 2018. With returning players in Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, Matt Moyer, and Paschal Chukwu, the Orange had a good nucleus to work with. Adding to that mix were 6-8 forward Oshae Brissett, 6-9 forward Marek Dolezaj, and 6-10 center Bourama Sidibe – all freshman – along with the 6-6 Hughes, a sophomore who had transfered from East Carolina.

Syracuse opened the season 6-0 capped by a 72-70 win over Maryland in the annual ACC-Big 10 Challenge in the Carrier Dome on Nov. 27. A 76-60 loss to No. 2 Kansas in the Hoophall Miami Invitational followed on Dec. 2. The Orange got back on the winning track with a 72-63 win over Connecticut in the Jimmy V. Classic which started a four-game winning streak. Included in the streak was an 86-79 overtime win at Georgetown on Dec. 16. Battle, Brissett, and Howard all had big games for Syracuse with Battle’s 29 points and 6-for-11 3-point shooting leading the way. Brissett added 25 points and 14 rebounds while Howard finished with 19 points and 9 assists. After an 81-74 win over Buffalo, the Orange fell at home 60-57 in overtime to St. Bonaventure of the Atlantic-10 Conference. The Orange rebounded with a 62-47 win over Eastern Michigan putting them at 11-2 overall as they entered ACC play. Syracuse would get off to a slow start in conference play, beating Virginia Tech 68-56 in the opener before losing four in a row to Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Virginia, and Florida State. Battle’s career high 37 points were not enough in a 101-90 double overtime loss at Florida State. Three straight wins followed with a sweep of Pittsburgh sandwiched around a victory over Boston College leaving the Orange at 14-6, 4-4 in late January. After splitting its next four games, Syracuse was 6-6 in the ACC with six games to play in the regular season. Huge games against No. 10 North Carolina and No. 5 Duke lied ahead along with a date in the regular season finale with Clemson which was nationally ranked during the season. The Orange would go just 2-4 over these last six games with the wins coming over Miami and Clemson. Meanwhile the losses came against tougher competition in NC State, North Carolina, Duke, and Boston College. This left Syracuse at 19-12, 8-10 at the end of the regular season as they finished tied for 10th in the ACC. Whatever chance the Orange had for an NCAA bid was helped by a 55-52 win over No. 18 Clemson in the regular season finale. Battle and Brissett scored 17 points apiece. Next up was the ACC Tournament where Syracuse logged its first ever victory in the event with a win over Wake Forest in the first round. North Carolina was next and Syracuse fell 78-59.

Tyus Battle was a reliable player for the Orange who could take his man off the dribble and create his own shot.

At 20-13 overall, the Orange held its’ breath on March 11, 2018 when the NCAA bids were announced. However the players erupted into a raucous celebration on campus upon hearing the announcement from CBS’s Greg Gumbel on live television on selection sunday. The eruption by the players even took Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim by surprise as he received a warm smile from his wife Julie. The Orange drew the No. 11 seed and beat Arizona State 60-56 in the First Four in Dayton, OH. Brissett’s 23 points and 12 rebounds lead Syracuse which overcame a seven-point deficit with 7:05 left to play. Battle added 15 points and broke a 52-52 tie with 1:51  left to play putting the Orange in front for good. Frank Howard added 12 points while Chukwu grabbed 9 rebounds. The victory sent Syracuse into the round of 64 against Texas Christian University which had won 21 games on the season. TCU lead 28-27 at the half and the game would be closely contested in the second half. A layup by Sidibe with 11:18 left to play put the Orange up 38-37 and they would never trail again. Chukwu’s pair of free throws with three seconds left to play iced the game. Dolezaj lead Syracuse with 17 points while Brissett added 15 points and 9 rebounds. Chukwu grabbed a team-best 10 boards.

The Orange had survived a pair of close wins against tough competition and now moved on to play No. 3 seed Michigan State in the second round. The Spartans, who entered the game with 30 wins on the season, were a top contender to reach the Final Four behind sophomore forward Miles Bridges who in 2018 was a unanimous All Big Ten First Team selection and also was one of 10 players named to the John R. Wooden Award All-American Team. The Orange thwarted Bridges and the Spartans with a balanced attack. Battle paced three Syracuse players in double figures scoring with 17 points while Brissett added 15 with Howard chipping in 13. Although the Orange got outrebounded 51-30, their 2-3 zone defense held the Spartans to 25.8 percent shooting for the game. Bridges finished with 11 points and six rebounds while Cassius Winston lead the Spartans with 15 points.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim is completing his 45th year as head coach of his alma matter in 2020-21.

The win sent Syracuse into the Sweet 16 where it met the Duke Blue Devils. The game featured the two winningest coaches in Division I history with Boeheim ranking second and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski the all-time leader. The game went back-and-forth in the first half with neither side building much of a lead. A 3-pointer by Grayson Allen inside of the final minute gave Duke a 34-27 lead at the half, the largest margin at the time. While the Orange would never lead in the second half, Duke never had more than a nine-point lead. Syracuse pulled to within one several times but could never pull ahead. A jumper by Allen extended Duke’s lead to nine at 62-53 with 4:13 left to play. Battle hit one of two foul shots to pull Syracuse within 67-65 before the Orange fouled sending Gary Trent Jr. to the foul line where he hit both shots for the final margin as Duke went on to the Elite Eight. Allen finished with 15 points while Marvin Bagley III lead Duke with 22 points and seven rebounds. Battle scored 19 points to lead Syracuse which got 15 points from Brissett and 13 points from Dolezaj. A heck of a season and a great run in the NCAA Tournament had come to an end for the Orange as they finished 23-14.

2015-2016

Having not played in the postseason in 2014-15 due to a self-imposed postseason ban brought on by NCAA sanctions, Syracuse was hungry for a fresh start as the 2015-16 season approached. The Orange had endured a subpar season the year before, going 18-13 and finishing in eighth place in the ACC at 9-9. Syracuse returned some experience in 6-7 guard Michael Gbinije who developed into the point guard and 6-4 shooting guard Trevor Cooney. Both were graduate students. As the season wore on this pair would prove extremely valuable to the team with their poise, leadership, and production. In the frontcourt was 6-9 senior center DaJuan Coleman, 6-8 junior forward Tyler Roberson, and 6-6 freshman Malachi Richardson. With many long wingspans, these rangy players made the 2-3 zone of the Orange long and athletic. Also in the mix was the tallest player to ever play for Syracuse in the 7-2 Chukwu along with 6-8 freshman forward Tyler Lydon.

Syracuse opened the season 6-0 and won the Battle for Atlantis Tournament in Paradis Island, Bahamas with a 74-67 win over No. 25 Texas A&M in the championship game on Nov. 27. That was preceeded by a 79-76 win over No. 18 Connecticut in the semifinals. Gbinije’s 20 points paced the Orange in the title win while Syracuse placed five players in double figures scoring against Connecticut topped by Gbinije and Conney with 17 apiece. Lydon made a big impact off the bench with 16 points and 12 rebounds. These victories – which came over previously undefeated teams – would prove to be enormous for the Orange’s NCAA outlook as the season went on because they immediately ran into a rough patch and had a subpar year in conference play.

Syracuse followed its’ Battle 4 Atlantis Championship up with back-to-back losses. A  home overtime loss to Wisconsin in the annual ACC-Big 10 Challenge was first and was followed by a loss at rival Georgetown. A loss at St. Johns soon followed leaving the Orange at 7-3. Syracuse won its final three non-conference games to go into conference play at 10-3.

That is where things got ugly. The Orange opened ACC play 0-4 before beating Boston College at home on Jan. 13 for its’ first conference win of the season. That was part of three straight wins which was capped off by a thrilling 64-62 win at No. 20 Duke on Jan 18. Roberson stole the show with 14 points and grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds including 12 offensive boards to tie the Syracuse single game school record initially set by Orange all-time great Billy Owens in 1990. A loss at Virginia followed before Syracuse won five straight games to stand at 18-8 and 8-5 in the ACC. However the Orange lost four of its’ last five regular season games and it appeared their chances for an NCAA bid were dwindling. A 72-71 loss to Pittsburgh in the second round of the ACC Tournament dropped Syracuse to 19-13 and made their NCAA chances obscure. However they would get in as a No. 10 seed and what was to come in the coming three weeks was thrilling. The Orange took their fans on a magical ride that went all the way to the Final Four. Facing Dayton in the first round, Syracuse placed five players in double figures scoring paced by Richardson’s 21 points en route to a 70-51 win. Lydon added 14 points and seven rebounds while Roberson hauled in 18 rebounds to go with 10 points. A second round matchup followed against upset minded Middle Tennessee State who had knocked off No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round. The Orange lead 31-27 at the half and pulled away in the second half behind a 30-8 run that sealed the victory. Gbinije’s 23 points lead Syracuse which got 14 points from Lydon and 12 apiece from Cooney and Roberson. Gonzaga was next in the Sweet 16 in Chicago, IL. The Orange closed the game on a 15-3 run over the last 6:30, advancing to the Elite Eight for the third time in the last five seasons. Gbinije scored 20 points for Syracuse which got 15 from Cooney and 10 from Richardson. Roberson hauled in 12 big rebounds. It was on to face ACC rival Virginia, the Midwest’s top seed, in the regional final. Down 35-21 at the half, the Orange pulled to within seven with 15:02 left to play on a 3-pointer by Lydon. However Virginia built its’ lead back up to 15 at 54-39 with 9:32 to play. Syracuse then turned to its’ press which lead to four turnovers that yielded seven points over the next several minutes. It was all part of a 20-4 run over 3:42 that put the Orange ahead for good at 59-58 with 5:50 to play. Not out of the woods yet, Syracuse got a clutch 3 and layup from Richardson pushing the lead to 64-58. The Orange shot 4-for-6 from the foul line in the last 25 seconds to secure the dramatic come-from-behind victory, 68-62. Richardson scored 23 points to pace Syracuse which got 11 points apiece from Gbinije and Lydon along with 10 points and eight rebounds from Roberson.

Malachi Richardson was instrumental for Syracuse with 23 points in the Orqnge’s comeback win over Virginia in the Midwest Regional Championship game in 2016.

It was onto the Final Four where the Orange met North Carolina in the national semifinals at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX on April 2. Trailing 39-28 at intermission, Syracsue came out of the break and pulled within eight on a Cooney 3 in the first minute. The Tarheels answered with a 16-8 run doubling the lead to 16. An 11-2 run featuring 3’s from Cooney and Richardson along with a dunk by Cooney pulled the Orange to within 57-50 with 9:48 to play. However Syracuse would get no closer as its’ season came to an end at 23-14 following its sixth appearance in the Final Four. Cooney shot 9-for-18 from the field including a 4-for-8 effort from 3 to finish with 22 points to lead the Orange which got 17 points from Richardson and 12 from Gbinije.

While these Sweet 16 performances have been surprising for Syracuse, they have also been memorable based on how they have done it to get there and beyond. With five wins in their last six games, the Orange are playing their best basketball of the season. That bodes well for any team that is in the Sweet 16. This time of year in college basketball is all about surviving and advancing. As Syracuse prepares to take on Houston, it will become known if this run to the Sweet 16 goes farther.


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