Berman: Syracuse’s schedule doesn’t deserve criticism
On a day when Georgetown visited Duke, North Carolina played Kentucky and Arizona took on Illinois, Syracuse’s marquee game was against Wichita State. The Shockers entered the game ranked No. 17, knocked off Louisiana State earlier this season and has garnered its share of Cinderella mentions by the national media. That will only intensify after its 64-61 win over the Orange on Saturday.
Still, the fact Wichita State is ranked won’t calm critics who question head coach Jim Boeheim’s scheduling habits. Before the Big East schedule starts, SU travels like Christian Brothers Academy and hosts whatever concoction of mid-majors is willing to visit the Carrier Dome.
This shouldn’t be a problem. There’s nothing wrong with Boeheim’s scheduling.
While it might be fun for fans to see Syracuse visit Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium or participate in the heavyweight-loaded Maui Invitational, there is a strategic sense to SU’s early season schedule. Don’t forget what happened in March the past two seasons.
Syracuse steamed through the Big East tournament, loaded with the type of teams it usually sees in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but was shut out in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Two seasons ago, it was No. 13-seed Vermont from the America East conference. Last year, it was Texas A&M from the Big 12, although the Aggies were a No. 12 seed.
The truth is the teams Syracuse schedules in the early season are the teams it will have to beat in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In case you haven’t noticed, Syracuse has become used to being seeded in the 3-6 range of the Tournament. That means it plays teams seeded from 14-11. Those teams are usually mid-majors.
‘If we get to the NCAA Tournament, this is the type of team we’re going to have to face,’ center Darryl Watkins said. ‘They have good players, but they collapse together a little bit better.’
Since SU’s championship run in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, only two of the 64 teams seeded between 11-14 in the Tournament have been from the six power conferences-UCLA as a No. 11 seed in 2005 and Texas A&M as a No. 12 seed last year. Taking it back to 2000, 106 of the 112 teams seeded between 11-14 were not from power conferences.
Granted, there have been big-name programs like Utah, Temple and Gonzaga in that category, but for the most part it’s from the type of conferences SU plays in November and December.
Plus, considering the recent success of mid-majors-George Mason beat No. 1 Connecticut to reach the Final Four last season-and these teams knocking off storied programs early this season, that line between major and mid-major is beginning to blur.
‘I don’t even look at none of these teams as mid-majors anymore; I honestly don’t,’ junior Terrence Roberts said. ‘The talent can go anywhere nowadays. You have a lot of guys with great talent who want to go to schools like Oral Roberts and Wichita State just so they can play, and they end up being great teams. George Mason was in the Final Four last year. So I don’t look at any of these teams as mid-majors, because you can go out and lose to any of these guys.’
The power conferences will still rule college basketball, and the high-profile program won’t lose television time to Butler or Southern Illinois anytime soon. Syracuse’s schedule would probably look more attractive if it featured tough road games early season or brought marquee opponents to the Carrier Dome. But the Big East is full of enough tough teams that SU receives those types of games in January and February.
‘We have one of the toughest schedules from January and March that there is to have,’ Roberts said. ‘We feel like we’re playing good teams. All these teams we’ve played, they’re good teams. They’ve beaten people and most teams we play are undefeated until we play them.
‘Most of the teams we play end up being in the first round-the Hofstras, the Ionas, teams like that. And you look at the end of the season, and who has one of the highest RPIs? We do.’
On that end, Roberts has a point. The Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which factors in winning percentage and schedule strength among other variables, is one of the reasons why SU had a No. 5 seed last year despite losing 12 games. It had an RPI of 17, which would put it among the top 20 teams in the country and within reason for a No. 5 seed.
But those high seeds do no good if it can’t knock off its first-round opponent. That hasn’t been the case the past two seasons for SU. So while it might be fun to watch SU take on Kentucky or Arizona early in the season, New Hampshire or Bethune-Cookman are the Wildcats SU is more likely to see early in the NCAA Tournament. It might not be exciting in December, but it could pay dividends in March-and judging by George Mason last season, maybe even April.
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