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Missing March Madness

Jim Boeheim talks with his players during a timeout against NC State
Jim Boeheim talks with his players during a timeout against NC State

Every college basketball program begins its season with the same end-goal in mind: reach the NCAA tournament, and make a run at a title. For some programs, this has become less of a goal, and more of an expectation. Syracuse for example has been a staple of March Madness, having been a part of the tournament 15 times since the year 2000. But after missing the big dance last year, SU is in serious danger of falling short again, after getting trounced by Duke 77-55 this past weekend.

Currently, ESPN does not have Syracuse as a tournament team. In Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket projections, the Orange are nowhere to be found. Back-to-back years without a March Madness appearance is certainly unusual for Syracuse, but it’s not unheard of. To find the last time SU fell into that trap, we need to go back in time to when Flo-Rida’s “Low” was blasting over everyone’s car stereos.

Now picture it’s the year 2008, and SU basketball has fallen on hard times. Cuse’s 2007-08 campaign proved to be one of the most disappointing in program history. Despite the introductions of McDonald’s All-Americans Donte Green and Johnny Flynn, as well as returns from veteran players Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins, injuries plagued the Orange all year, and they failed to meet expectations. In a shocking turn of events though, head coach Jim Boeheim was actually optimistic, and spoke highly of his team as it entered the new year.

“Well I think we learned a lot. I think as a team these guys had to grow up a lot. They had to grow up fast. They had to play a lot of minutes. We didn’t have any depth, all freshmen and sophomores. So it was a tremendously difficult year and we got through it, and really played pretty well, and I think we learned a lot of lessons that will help us this year,” Boeheim said preseason.

But what kinds of lessons did SU learn? Its first big test came in the O’Reilly Auto Parts C-B-E Classic, where it faced two nationally ranked squads in Florida and Kansas. The Orange squeaked by with a 89-83 win over the Gators in the first game of the tournament, and then scored a huge comeback and overtime win over the Jayhawks, 89-81.

Johnny Flynn tied things up with a three late in regulation, Andy Rautins hit the dagger from downtown in overtime, SU beat Kansas 89-81, and from then on the Orange were off and running. Cuse won 16 of its first 17 games, and was ranked as high as eighth overall in the AP poll. SU entered the Big East tournament after a 23-8 regular season, before playing one of the best games in college basketball history.

It took six overtime periods, but Syracuse overcame UConn 127-117 despite never holding a lead in the first five OT sessions. Johnny Flynn led all scorers with 34 points, and four different SU players scored 20 or more in the historic win. Cuse later fell to Louisville in the Big East final, but then it was time for the big dance. In round one, SU walloped Stephen F Austin 59-44. In round two, they toppled Arizona State 78-67. But ultimately, Syracuse was stopped by an Oklahoma team led by future first overall NBA draft pick Blake Griffin. The Sooners came out on top 84-71, halting the Orange run in its tracks.

What’s the lesson here, though? Even when things seem like they’re at their worst for SU basketball, there are better days ahead, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes you just have to look really hard.