It has become a March tradition. Syracuse enters Selection Sunday firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Its inclusion is questioned. Then, the Orange prove how silly that debate was.
This year’s surprising run to the Sweet 16 is the third time in the past five years Syracuse has reached the second weekend of the dance as a double-digit seed — twice as a No. 11; once as a 10, in its 2016 Final Four run — following up mediocre seasons with a masterful March.
“If you were to ask me a month or two months ago, where I think we would be, I don’t think I would say Sweet 16, that’s for sure,” junior star Buddy Boeheim, the son of coach Jim Boeheim, said.
Eleventh-seeded Syracuse (18-9), which meets No. 2 seed Houston in a Midwest Region semifinal Saturday night, is 9-3 in the tournament since 2016. But the Orange are only 56-52 in the ACC in that same time period. Each season, the tournament was a question mark, but once in, Syracuse provided an exclamation point. Oddly, the three recent trips to the tournament as a double-digit seed are the only times the Orange have been seeded lower than eighth.
Each team had a different leading scorer and offensive strength. The common denominator has been Jim Boeheim and his trademark 2-3 zone. It flummoxed No. 6 seed San Diego State in the opening round, holding the Aztecs without a point over the final 10:19 of the first half, and it handcuffed No. 3 seed West Virginia for large stretches in a narrow victory.
“You don’t just roll out of bed and play 2-3 zone the way they do,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s the best that’s ever coached the 2-3 zone, and they’re the best to ever play it.”
Teams don’t face much zone during the regular season. Few employ it the majority of the time. In the ACC, foes are used to seeing it. Once March arrives, it might as well be a foreign language. Baylor coach Scott Drew said up to 90 percent of the teams in the country play man-to-man, and the Syracuse zone and its many long and athletic defenders create different shots.
“You can’t prepare for the zone,” said Syracuse assistant coach and former player Allen Griffin, who faced it twice in the postseason as an opposing coach while with Dayton. “If you’re not familiar with the zone, the length of it, the athleticism in it, it can gobble you up a little bit.”
There are two keys to beating the zone: A penetrating guard and someone who can get into the middle of the zone to make a play. Not everyone has that, or has the experience against it. Teams frequently settle for extra-long jumpers.
“That’s why Jim plays it — he’s always playing against a team’s second-best offense and an offense the opposing team doesn’t practice,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said.
There was one break in this run. In 2016, Syracuse faced No. 15 Middle Tennessee, instead of second-seeded Michigan State, in the second round. Otherwise, the Orange have beaten highly seeded teams. In 2018, they knocked off No. 3 Michigan State. In 2016, they defeated No. 1 Virginia. This year, they ousted Final Four contender West Virginia.
This year’s team is different from the previous two. Those teams didn’t enter the tournament hot. They came in playing shaky basketball, turning strong seasons into uneven ones, only to rally once getting in. This group won three of four, and the lone loss was at the buzzer to Virginia, which was a four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“They’ve got talented players at every position, so it’s not like they’re without players,” Bilas said. “I’m not sure that the question is why are they doing well in the tournament. It’s why didn’t they do as well during the season?”
The Orange have steadily improved, gotten better defensively and morphed into an elite 3-point shooting unit over the last month as Boeheim’s son, Buddy, emerged as the unquestioned go-to guy. Since an ugly 17-point loss at Clemson on Feb. 6, Syracuse has won eight of 11 games. Buddy has averaged 22.4 points and shot 49.4 percent from 3-point range in that span. Two of the losses, to Virginia and Georgia Tech, were by a combined 10 points. The Orange have defeated four tournament teams in that stretch. The eight wins have come by an average of 9.6 points. They aren’t just getting by.
“We’d like to be good in the regular season and the tournament, but if you’re not as good as you’d like to be in the regular season, then let’s play well in the tournament,” Jim Boeheim said. “That’s what these guys have done.”