A disturbing trend

In Syracuse’s six NCAA appearances since winning the title in 2003, only once have they been beaten by a higher-seeded team. The other five times, they have been legitimately upset:

2004: #5 SU loses to #8 Alabama
2005: #4 SU loses to #13 Vermont
2006: #5 SU loses to #12 Texas A&M
(2007 & 2008: NIT)
2009: #3 SU loses to #2 Oklahoma
2010: #1 SU loses to #8 Butler
2011: #3 SU loses to #11 Marquette

Of course there are reasons and excuses for some of these. Injuries played a part in 2006 and 2010, for instance. But the overall pattern is there, and it’s more than a little scary. The flip side of this is that SU hasn’t beaten a higher-seeded team since 2004, when they topped #4 Maryland in the 2nd round. (They haven’t even had a chance to do so, other than the Oklahoma game, because they keep getting upset.)

I’m not sure on what to blame this trend. The NCAA Tournament’s format certainly contributes to it — when a team gets high seeds year after year, they have to play more games against lower-seeded teams, creating many more chances to be upset than to do the upsetting. But can that be the only factor? Is it a reflection of SU’s historical propensity to play “up” or “down” to their opponent’s perceived talent level - which is known to happen in the regular season too? Did SU overachieve in the regular season, and get a seed higher than their talent deserved? Is it something about the type of players Boeheim gets, or the system they play? Or are these just five individual losses that have five individual reasons behind them, with no deeper meaning?

I find your lack of wins disturbing.

It’s worth noting that there is a somewhat comparable stretch like this in SU history. In the four years from 1988 through 1991, SU was either a 2 or 3 seed each year but only played “up to their seed” once:

1988: #3 SU loses to #11 Rhode Island (Sherm had the flu)
1989: #2 SU loses to #1 Illinois
1990: #2 SU loses to #6 Minnesota

From 1992 to 2003, though, SU suddenly got solid. They did not get upset at all. (The only game they lost to a lower seed was in 1999, when the #8 seeded Orangemen lost to #9 Oklahoma State in the first round. Hardly an upset though.) But even during this stretch, did they ever play significantly above expectations?

Well, it happened twice, of course. They made the finals in 1996 as a 4 seed and in 2003 as a 3 seed. Other than those two magical seasons, the only ‘upset’ they authored was when they won a 4/5 game as a 5 seed in 1998. But if you think back, you know that they were still a force to be reckoned with in many of these tournaments. In 1995, for instance, they had Arkansas beat until Moten had a brain lock in the final seconds, calling a timeout when they hadn’t any left. SU was a #7 seed that year, Arkansas was a #2 and the defending champs (and would go on to be the national runner-up). As a #4 seed in 1994, they took #1 seed Missouri to overtime in Adrian Autry’s last game. In 2000, they had #1 seed (and eventual champ) Michigan State in a deep hole, but then a Detroit home crowd and some helpful referees put MSU back in the game.

I’m not worried about the fact that SU rarely upsets anyone — their seed is usually high enough that they don’t get many chances at it (and if you fail the first chance, you don’t get a second). And, the times that they have pulled an upset, they have gone ahead and pulled a few in a row, authoring a couple of fantastic tournament runs. But I am at a loss to fully explain why they have lost to a pile of lower-seeded teams, particularly recently. Anyone have any ideas?

Credit goes to my little brother for first identifying this trend.


  1. MrPlow99
    Posted March 30, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    It doesn’t change your point, but Butler was a 5 seed in 2010, not an 8.

  2. Posted March 30, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Oops, good catch. I have been too inundated by recent Butler stories I guess.

  3. Jake
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Alabama hit about 45 threes that game? Not much you can do about it when the other team is on. See: Seton Hall at the dome this year.

  4. Posted March 31, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    The 2006 team should hardly count; that #5 seed was a total mirage. That was the “not TEN FUCKING GAMES” team, right? That team legitimately sucked and wasn’t even going to make the tournament 4 days before the end of the season. Then Gerry goes all God-King on us and wins 4 in 4 days, and the committee gets all googly-eyed and gives us a 5 seed. I remember not even being surprised or all that disappointed when we lost to Texas A&M that year. SU fans that had watched the team for 3 months knew it wasn’t actually particularly good and that the show in New York was a series of one-man miracles unlikely to be repeated.

    That said, it does seem a little suspect to look at this trend and come up with excuse after excuse to explain away all the failures. Clearly the trend is real. 2005 was beyond unforgivable; 2010 still stings; 2011 has no real explanation either.

    My only consolation is that a huge percentage of big name schools could probably make the same list for themselves that you just made. Think about how much worse this list must look for Pittsburgh. And think about Kansas too — “Hey, remember when we won the title in 2008? Yeah, that was awesome! Hey, remember the other 15 years from the mid-90’s until 2011 when we were a #1 seed almost every year and lost to a double-digit seed pretty much every time?” I’m sure their average underperformance rating far outstrips ours.

  5. Posted March 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    The 2006 team was certainly not really deserving of their 5 seed — however, they were a legit bubble team, pending some success in the BET, and even if they hadn’t beat UConn in the 2nd round they’d have probably got in as a low seed. Maybe they’d have been just around the 12 that A&M got, but maybe a little higher. Who knows.

  6. SUFaninMA
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Look to the coach for your answer. When they’ve done well in the tournament they’ve had dominant players (Coleman, Douglas, Seikaly, Owens, Wallace, Melo, McNamara, Warrick). Bumhiem’s never “coached” a team deep into the tournament.

  7. Bill
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I think SU is a great program, just not an elite program. Their resume is as good or better than 98% of other schools. I don’t blame Boeheim (cept his weak out of conference scheduling) and I don’t think any coach does well without talent. This year’s version lacked the go-to scorer and smart guard play necessary in the tourney.

    Last season was the biggest stomach punch of them all. That was the best SU squad of the past 20 years.

    Alabama and Vermont were the only others that we really dropped the ball and I think that points more to Warrick’s “overrratedness” (and TJ Sorrentine’s ridiculous range).

    The Donte Greene year was tough to deal with. That dude is a cancer.

  8. Posted April 1, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Coach Boeheim plays in my mind a very easy defense to play against. While most NCAA teams press and force the issue the Cuse drop back into their zone and allow their opponents to walk the ball up the court and setup there plays. The zone is fine but there needs to be a changeup on Offense and Defense by the cuse to compete at this level successfully.

  9. sowaxeman
    Posted April 1, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    This is always the worst time of year for me. Watching teams that you think have a legitimate chance to make a run, and then BAM! Marquette, twice in one season, seriously?! Last year was the worse…being from Indy, I gave Butler no chance. Then you hang your head and start to think of how much better next years team will be…and I think next year will be just that. Damn I hate waiting 365 days to get my hopes all high again!

  10. Keith G
    Posted April 2, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s actually only half as bad as you think. You are assuming that seedings are accurate indicators of which team is better. But seedings are subjective. A better indicator is an objective power rankings type measure, such as Jeff Sagarin’s Predictor Rankings.

    If we look at Sagarin’s Predictor rankings for the teams and years in question (available on USA Today’s site), Sagarin actually had Alabama as a better team that SU in 2005, Texas A&M as the better team in 2006, and Oklahoma as the better team in 2009. So, seedings aside, I’d be hard-pressed to call those true upsets.

    I can’t get too upset about last year, either. Butler was one shot away from winning the national title, and guess what? They’re back in the title game this year, minus a 1st round draft pick from a year ago. Not to mention Arinze Onuaku’s injury.

    I only see two really troubling losses on this list. Vermont in 2004, and Marquette this year. The others, I (and Jeff Sagarin), can make a strong argument that SU was not the better team, despite what the seedings said.

  11. Posted April 4, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    The real thing to look at is most of the teams play a man to man defense and apply pressure, while the zone is good, it doesn’t apply in your face pressure, I do realize that some of the talent doesn’t match the ability needed, but I am sure all good players can get there with work and dedication. That is the biggest different, aggression versus being passive.

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