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Syracuse making the most of a bid that never should have been

A good many Syracuse fans are pointing their fingers at the NCAA Tournament and using the results to justify their argument. The Orange are headed to the Final Four after coming back from a 16-point deficit to beat Virginia, marking the first No. 10 seed to dance this late into the night.

Syracuse deserves all the credit for coming together at the right time. The Orange are a primary example of why college hoop fans love March Madness. They’re proof that every team has a chance to win the tournament. In a strange year in which most brackets were blown to pieces in the first round, they survived.

As you would imagine, Orange fans were swept up in euphoria after seeing their team take down UVA in this string of unlikely events. Syracuse has been riding the wave of success for more than two weeks. It shows what can happen when a team unites and enough other pieces fall into place.

It was an upset, certainly. But shocking? Not really.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Syracuse. It’s an appreciation of excellence and longevity, more fondness than deep-rooted fandom. Syracuse has been adopted by many from our region for one reason or another. Buffalo has a loose connection to Syracuse, but it’s a connection to big-time basketball nonetheless.

Syracuse earned its trip to the Final Four, strange only because it didn’t belong in the NCAA Tournament in the first place. Right about now is when Syracuse fans click “email” and whine with Boeheimian disdain about such a ridiculous statement before telling me I’m a moron who should be fired.

Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with Syracuse. My beef is with the selection process that allowed ’Cuse into the tournament. The Orange lost four of their last five regular-season games, finished ninth in Atlantic Coast Conference with a .500 record and suffered a first-round knockout in the conference tournament to a Pitt team that finished 10th in the ACC and and somehow also was given a 10 seed in the NCAAs.

The Orange had their usual non-conference gimmies at home against the likes of Lehigh, Elon and Colgate. Syracuse can afford to pay big money to smaller programs knowing the odds of winning at the Carrier Dome are tipped in their favor. They wouldn’t dare playing such schools on the road because, well, why bother? They’re Syracuse.

Syracuse lost a non-conference game at home to Wisconsin and two others on the road, to former Big East rivals Georgetown and St. John’s. Their 23-13 record now looks much prettier after it sat at 19-13 through the ACC Tournament, including a loss in the regular-season finale to a Florida State team that failed to reach the NCAAs.

While diehard fans would argue two non-conference losses came while Jim Boeheim served a nine-game banishment for overseeing a program littered with NCAA violations, and another in his first game back, it appeared Syracuse was granted leniency for starting the season without its suspended coach.

It’s not how the system should work. Then again, we’re talking about a major program that generates millions of dollars for the NCAA. The NCAA tourney selection committee can say what it pleases, but it would have a difficult time convincing many that the decision wasn’t based partly on marketability and money.

And that’s a problem.

Syracuse made the most of the opportunity granted, but it was the beneficiary of a flawed system. The results through the first four rounds are not evidence that the NCAA had it right. They are proof that teams from power conferences are more likely to cover up mistakes made by the selection committee.

In other words, the Orange were the safe choice over a team such as St. Bona, which won 22 games, including 10 of 11 down the stretch, and a share of a conference title. Monmouth was 27-7, split an away-and-neutral series with USC, beat Notre Dame and, unlike Syracuse, won at Georgetown.

This is not to suggest Bona and Monmouth are better than Syracuse. In fact, Syracuse would beat both more often than not. It doesn’t mean Syracuse was more deserving given what happened in the regular season. A team finishing ninth in its conference should not be selected ahead of teams that won mid-major conferences.

’Cuse is first No. 10 seed to reach the Final Four, but it’s not some Cinderella. It doesn’t belong in conversations with No. 10 Davidson reaching the Elite Eight in 2008, No. 11 George Mason reaching the national semifinals in 2006 or No. 11 VCU getting there in 2011 after a play-in game.

The beauty of the tournament can be found in mid-majors such as Butler and Wichita State competing with the big boys, not one of the big boys finishing in the bottom half of a power conference and beating mid-majors. Syracuse’s success in the tournament, while undeniable, isn’t like Yale or Little Rock making a run.

I’m not trying to take away from Syracuse’s success in the Big Dance. The win over seventh-seeded Dayton in the first round was solid, but it was hardly an upset. The Orange beat a 15th seed in Middle Tennessee State that returned to reality after knocking off Michigan State and then clipped 11th-seeded Gonzaga to reach the Elite Eight You could hear the screams down the Thruway after the win over UVA.

Was it possible for St. Bonaventure or Monmouth to beat Dayton, Middle Tennessee State and Gonzaga? Yes, yes and yes.

It would have been much tougher for either to beat Virginia. But, as we learned through the first four rounds, anything can happen. Sadly, because the selection committee took a big-name revenue generator in Syracuse over mostly obscure mid-majors, we’ll never find out.

Syracuse fans should point their fingers at the Orange’s success and rejoice. I’m pointing mine at the tournament selection committee’s failure and wondering what might have been.


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