The Syracuse men’s basketball team has improved to 18-0 Wednesday night after a systematic beat down of Villanova.
Had the Wildcats not thrown in a few meaningless threes in the closing minutes, the score would have been more indicative of what actually transpired.
Syracuse was expected to win, so this is no bragging point for an Orange team that is one win away from matching its best start ever.
With only 13 games remaining on the schedule, questions are circulating as to when this team will lose its first game.
Since the NCAA Tournament has become the standard for deciding the national champion, only four schools have successfully made the run from the regular season to the national title unblemished.
In 1956, Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons went 29-0 and clinched their second consecutive championship.
The next year, North Carolina went 32-0 and beat Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas Jayhawks in triple overtime to win the title. It was the second consecutive night the Tar Heels would win in triple overtime, as the games were not spread out as they are today.
UCLA had been crowned undefeated NCAA champions an astonishing four times in the ‘60s and ‘70s, spanning the careers of Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor, Henry Bibby and Bill Walton.
The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers were the last team to pull off this feat. Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers went 32-0 that season, and have been sipping champagne every year since. Also two scares, one by Larry Bird’s Indiana State in 1979, which lost the title game to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and the second, was the 1991 UNLV team that had lost in the Final Four to a destined Duke Blue Devils squad.
That’s it, two scares.
In 2004, St. Joseph was the last school to finish the regular season undefeated, going 27-0. The Hawks were led by Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, but stumbled against Xavier in the Atlantic-10 Tournament. So I won’t consider them in the discussion.
Does this Syracuse team have the ability to be the first team in 36 years to go undefeated?
Ability, yes. Likelihood to do so, pretty low.
In amassing its impressive record, Syracuse has run the gamut of scenarios it should face from here on out. They’ve blown most teams out, survived late rushes, and even hit key free throws at the end of games to separate themselves from past Syracuse teams.
The only thing they haven’t had to do is play from behind for an extended period of time.
The argument for Syracuse going undefeated starts with the ability to impose its elite defense. The Orange leads the nation in steals and turnover differential. They are also in the top ten in blocks and assist-turnover ratio.
Syracuse’s confounding defense may be the best defense in Jim Boeheim’s illustrious career, and is certainly one of the great weapons in the NCAA.
The second factor to consider is the Syracuse bench. They go at least two deep at every position, and the bench players could make up their own impressive squad that could rival most teams in the Big East.
Syracuse leads the nation in bench points, thanks largely to the inspired play of Dion Waiters. Waiters is the engine who makes Syracuse run. Even though he comes off of the bench, he should be among the leading considerations for Big East Player of the Year.
It would be understandable for this team to believe the hype surrounding it and not take an opponent seriously on a given night. Understandable, but not likely.
The two biggest arguments for Syracuse going undefeated are also the two reasons why they will stay humble.
Offensive ability comes natural for some players. Whether it be from quickness, height, or natural shooting touch, some players are just born to score.
Defense has to be learned.
This Syracuse team takes pride in its defense. Whether blocking a shot or stealing an errant pass, the Orange players seem to enjoy a great defensive effort more than they enjoy scoring. Their opponents may go on mini-runs during games, but this is generally due to a hot hand as opposed to a breakdown in defense.
Additionally, players having off-scoring nights often make up for it on the defensive side. They are rarely seen moping around on the court, but rather picking up the intensity to help the team.
Their depth is the other reason they should stay focused. Coach Boeheim has shown he has no problem using a quick hook when a player isn’t playing up to par. The players are aware of this and know that someone else is always on the bench waiting to fill in for a player who is screwing up. This is a great tool for motivation.
The arguments against Syracuse going undefeated are many. They start with the toughness of the Big East schedule. Teams would love nothing better than to knock off the No.1 team in the NCAA. When you mix in the rivalry factor, as in teams such as Georgetown and Connecticut, they’re in for a dog fight almost every night out.
There’s also the likelihood that they will most certainly have an off night, or nights. It could be poor shooting, foul trouble, or just a tired effort. Every team is going to have bad nights. Syracuse hasn’t suffered one yet.
So the question is: When will it happen and will the other team be able to rise to the occasion?
The pressure of going undefeated could be a factor, but I would think the journey is more motivational than pressured. These are young kids with a chance at basketball immortality. They don’t get lucky on the court; rather they put themselves in a position to be successful.
Playing tough defense creates benefits that are earned early and often. They share the ball so there is no selfishness, or egos. There are no players who feel the pressure to perform. It’s a team effort where all absorb the pressure.
Even if they are fortunate enough to run the table during the regular season, the Big East Tournament looms. Syracuse has had its share of success in the tournament, but the higher seeds have struggled as of late and the double bye may not be the blessing it appears to be.
Syracuse appears to be the best team the nation. They will be the favorite in every game they play this year and certainly have the ability to win every game. But other talented teams have had great talent and still lost.
The issue is that all the stars have to align for an undefeated season to occur. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a good loss, but conventional wisdom says a loss is likely to happen. Syracuse just has to hope that should they lose, they can build from it and move forward.
There’s also the physical toll of playing with a target on their backs every night. I would bet that Jim Boeheim would rather have a season where the entire team stays healthy over an undefeated season.
If Syracuse can make it through the season unbeaten, so be it. It’s every coach’s goal to win every game, so it’s a worthy goal.
Winning a national championship is the priority.
Everything else is window dressing.