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?
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.