For Syracuse, Four Victories but Little Vindication


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The 10th-seeded Orange on Sunday night after they won the Midwest Regional by defeating Virginia.

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Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Tenth-seeded Syracuse’s rise from a team that many thought did not merit a spot in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament to a surprise Final Four participant — the result of its 68-62 upset of top-seeded Virginia on Sunday night — deserves every ounce of marvel being thrown its way.

It is not just that the Orange are a year removed from a self-imposed postseason ban, or that the university’s announcement of that punishment was followed by N.C.A.A. findings that outsiders had paid former players and that former staff members had done their homework. Nor is it that Coach Jim Boeheim missed nine games (during which the Orange were 4-5) this season because of penalties related to that case.

It is that three weeks ago, the mere idea that Syracuse (23-13) deserved to make the tournament was an open question. It was ranked 72nd in the Rating Percentage Index. It had bowed out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in the first round, after its third loss to Pittsburgh this season. Its last victory over a tournament-bound team had come in January.

With Syracuse now headed to the Final Four in Houston, the conventional wisdom is that the N.C.A.A. selection committee’s decision to include the Orange has been vindicated. It looked past the red flags on Syracuse’s résumé and saw the early wins over Connecticut and Texas A&M, the conference wins over Notre Dame and Duke, the respectable No. 41 rating on the statistics site KenPom.com (the equivalent of a No. 39 because two potential at-large teams, Louisville and Southern Methodist, were out of the selection equation while serving their own postseason bans).

But what if that is exactly the wrong lesson? With no disrespect to the committee — or to Syracuse — what if the takeaway is that any team could do what Syracuse just did?

From one angle, the lesson is that Syracuse, an athletic team with hot shooting and a proven defensive scheme, was deserving all along. But an alternative lesson is that in a cramped, crazy, single-elimination tournament featuring teenagers, in which one of the leading title contenders was out after its first game, none of that really matters.

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Virginia’s Anthony Gill fouled Malachi Richardson of Syracuse in the Orange’s 68-62 upset of the top-seeded Cavaliers.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“I can create a loss for almost any team in the tournament,” Doug Fullerton, the Big Sky Conference commissioner and a former committee member, said in an interview days before the bracket was released.

The corollary is that it is also possible to craft the bracket to create a win by
almost any team in the field.

Or three wins. Consider the circumstances of Syracuse’s run. Its first opponent, Dayton, was a No. 7 partly because of a neutral-site win over Iowa in November, but Iowa faded badly and the Flyers did as well; the Orange won, 70-51. Syracuse’s next opponent was a result of the biggest break it got: No. 15 Middle Tennessee State upset No. 2 Michigan State in the first round, advancing only to lose to Syracuse by 25 points.

Next up was Gonzaga — underseeded at No. 11, but perhaps not the equivalent of a No. 3, which Syracuse would have played had favorites prevailed. Syracuse beat the Bulldogs in a grinding affair, 63-60. And then? A truly impressive performance Sunday night, when the Orange overcame a 16-point deficit in the second half to beat Virginia.

In reality, the only guaranteed way not to make a tournament run is to fail to make the tournament in the first place. And with only 36 at-large berths available, it is inevitable that worthy teams that might have been capable of something memorable will be left out.

This year, more likely than not, the teams left on the selection room floor were so-called midmajors. Of the final 10 at-large teams, four, including Syracuse, hailed from the Power 5 conferences; one was a high-major tournament perennial, Wichita State; and three others were the esteemed (and tournament-pedigreed) basketball programs at Cincinnati, Temple and Virginia Commonwealth.

Left out were Monmouth (27-7 on the day the field was selected) of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference; St. Mary’s (27-5) of the West Coast Conference; and St. Bonaventure (22-8) of the Atlantic 10.

Also left out was Valparaiso, which on Selection Sunday was 26-5 and ranked higher than Syracuse by KenPom.com. Since being snubbed, the Crusaders have won their three N.I.T. games by an average of 13 points, and they are favored to beat Brigham Young in that tournament’s semifinals Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Could Valparaiso — or any of the others — have accomplished what Syracuse has if the teams’ places were switched? Such a team would not have had the deep N.C.A.A. experience a coach like Boeheim can offer or the talent a program like Syracuse can recruit.

Then again, one might have said the same about the 2011 V.C.U. Rams, who made the Final Four under Coach Shaka Smart, now of Texas. Or about Davidson in 2008, when it emerged as a No. 10 seed out of the Southern Conference with an undersize star named Stephen Curry and lost by 2 points to the eventual champion, Kansas, in the round of 8. Or about Butler, which made consecutive trips to the national championship game, in 2010 and 2011.

But at least those teams got a chance to take their shot.

The N.C.A.A. tournament features a deliberately small sample set. Its job is not to adjudge the best team of the year but to crown a champion. Even if the selection committee — half of whose 10 members hail from Power 5 institutions — were to consciously or unconsciously show a bias in favor of the major schools, the event is philosophically committed to open access. That’s why the Big South tournament champion gets an automatic bid, just like the one from the Big Ten.

But should that logic be extended? What if, of 36 at-large bids, a set quota were reserved for non-power-conference schools every year? (Perhaps not just the Gonzagas and Wichita States, but the Monmouths and St. Mary’s of the basketball world.) The big conferences would surely object, but such a system might more fully embrace the appeal of the tournament and its sense of opportunity.

Nearly two weeks ago, when the main reaction was that Syracuse was fortunate just to be in the tournament, Boeheim answered his critics by saying, “We just think if we can play, and play the way we are capable, that we can beat anybody.”

That was prescient. But Boeheim also was lucky: He got a chance to prove it.

Correction: March 28, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated Gonzaga’s status in the N.C.A.A. tournament field. As a winner of its conference tournament, it was an automatic qualifier; it was not one of the final 10 at-large teams.

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