By Andrew Kahn
They had to sweat it out on Selection Sunday, but the Syracuse Orange are returning to the NCAA Tournament. Jim Boeheim’s suspension dominated much of the discourse surrounding this team, but there were some exciting games along the way. Here’s a look at Syracuse’s road to the Big Dance.
Preseason expectation: At the end of last season, Boeheim announced he’d coach three more years before longtime assistant Mike Hopkins took over. Setting a specific date in the future for a coach-in-waiting had never been done before. On the court, there was no guarantee the Orange would return to the Tournament after a self-imposed ban (and 18-13 record) kept them out last year. They were picked ninth in the ACC preseason poll. The departures of Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough left question marks in the frontcourt.
November 25-27: Syracuse wins the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, beating Charlotte, former Big East foe Connecticut, and Texas A&M along the way. Against UConn, five Orange players score between 13 and 17 points, including freshman Tyler Lydon, who goes 7-for-10 from deep in the three games. The wins are enough to get Syracuse in the polls the following Monday, their only appearance of the season.
December 3: Boeheim’s appeal of his nine-game suspension is upheld, but it is determined he can start serving it immediately, instead of at the start of the ACC schedule. It’s a curious ruling, but with several cupcakes during that stretch, Boeheim obliges.
December 5: Hopkins makes his head coaching debut, a 79-71 loss at old rival Georgetown. Boeheim can’t have any connection with the team, so Hopkins is not even allowed to call his mentor after the game.
January 5: Syracuse loses 74-73 in overtime against Clemson. The Tigers hit a three to tie the game with 11 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, Lydon connects from deep to get Syracuse within one with 12 seconds left and Trevor Cooney steals the ensuing inbounds pass but misses a three. It’s a disappointing end to Hopkins’ tenure as interim coach, considering the Orange are 0-3 in the ACC and also lost to lowly St. John’s during his time in charge.
January 9: Boeheim returns to the bench to welcome No. 9 North Carolina to the Carrier Dome, but Syracuse loses 84-73 and falls to 0-4 in the conference. Cooney hits 10-of-21 shots, including 5-of-12 from deep, but it’s not enough.
January 18: Tyler Roberson grabs 20 rebounds and Syracuse earns its first truly impressive win since November, 64-62 at Duke. Roberson recorded eight of Syracuse’s 26 offensive boards (they rebounded more than half of their misses), and also threw down this incredible alley-oop:
February 2: For the second game in a row, Syracuse earns a close victory, this one in overtime over Virginia Tech. The defense has been much better of late, a big reason they are in the midst of a stretch that will see them win eight games in nine tries.
March 5: The positive momentum comes to a screeching halt, as Syracuse loses to Pittsburgh to close the regular season. It is their fifth loss in six games. The Orange are 9-9 in conference play.
March 7: The ACC awards are announced, and Michael Gbinje makes the All-Conference second team and All-Defensive team, while Malachi Richardson is named to the All-Freshman squad.
March 9: In a matchup of bubble teams, Syracuse loses by one to Pitt in the 8-9 matchup in the ACC Tournament, denying them their 20th win. It is Syracuse’s third loss to the Panthers this season. Syracuse makes a nice comeback in the second half but Cooney’s three misses at the buzzer.
March 13: Bracketologists are split on whether Syracuse will make the field but the consensus is that they will not. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm has them as the last team in. It takes a while, but the Orange players hear their school called on the Selection Show.
The road ahead: Syracuse avoided a play-in game and is the 10 seed in the Midwest Region. They’ll play Dayton, the school that eliminated them in the second round in 2014, on Friday in St. Louis. A win would very likely lead to a matchup with Michigan State.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.