March Madness, for many, is all about unlikely teams catching fire and reaching the Final Four. Schools that weren’t even a blip on the radar prior to the NCAA Tournament have historically found some momentum in the early rounds of the Big Dance to challenge the top teams in the nation during the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. Whether it’s been George Mason, VCU, Wichita State, or Butler, the tourney (especially in recent years) has been no stranger to the “little guy” shocking to country with clutch win after clutch win over a couple of weekends in March.
The Syracuse Orange are not a “little guy” type of program by any means, as the program has reached five Final Fours (prior to 2015-16) and captured a national title back in 2003. Syracuse is also home to one of the best coaches in the history of the sport in Jim Boeheim and has produced several NBA greats – like Carmelo Anthony, for instance. In other words, calling the Orange a “Cinderella” team is a bit of a stretch most of the time. However, the team’s run to the Final Four this season is an exception, as the 2015-16 Syracuse Orange could be the most unlikely Final Four squad that we’ve ever seen.
Yes, the runs by VCU, George Mason, Butler, and others were highly unpredictable. With the turmoil that the Orange went through this season and the way in which they have won in the tournament though, it’s nearly unfathomable that the team will find itself playing for a championship in Houston next weekend. Let’s take a look at just how crazy Syracuse’s run has been and determine if they are truly the most “Cinderella-y” team in the history of the tournament.
The underdog runs by several teams over the past decade or so were made memorable by one key characteristic. Any team that has made an improbable March run has, almost by definition, been relatively unheralded by the mass majority of the nation. Sure, their were some devout George Mason fans prior to their run of 2006 and plenty of the VCU faithful were behind the Rams run of 2011, but they weren’t exactly in the national spotlight prior to their string of tournament victories. By that measure, Syracuse’s surge this season doesn’t even belong in the same conversation: They are just the fourth double-digit seed to ever reach this stage in the tournament and are the first 10-seed to do so (the previous three were 11-seeds). Syracuse’s magic this season spans beyond their seed, though.
For much of the season, the Orange were playing catch up. Head coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for the first nine games of the year, leading to some pretty painful early season defeats. Once Boeheim was back on the sidelines, ACC play was just around the corner for the team, where they lost their first four games in conference play. Syracuse responded with big wins over the likes of Duke and Notre Dame, but a 19-12 finish (just 9-9 in conference) saw them land in ninth place in the ACC, needing some success in the conference tournament to reach the Big Dance — at least, that’s what we all thought.
In their very first ACC Tournament game, the Orange lost to Pittsburgh and were tenuously on the tournament bubble. By the time Selection Sunday came around, there weren’t many people that expected the team to be included in the 68-team field. Somehow though, the selection committee gave them a 10-seed in the Midwest region as one of the last teams to receive an at-large berth. It was perceived as absurd at the time, but since then, Syracuse hasn’t looked back. They were strengthened by the adversity of their season and have fully taken advantage of their chance in March, maybe unlike any team we’ve ever seen.
More than that, it’s been the way in which Syracuse has won that has made their Final Four berth unbelievable. Yes, they got by their first two opponents (Dayton and Middle Tennessee State) with ease, winning by 20-plus points in each contest. However, once the Orange reached the Sweet 16, the competition got stronger and the games got tighter. In fact, in both their Sweet 16 and Elite 8 wins, Syracuse seemed to be on it’s way out of the dance.
First came the game against Gonzaga (a team some thought would be the double-digit seed to reach Houston). The Bulldogs had the Orange down late in the game before ‘Cuse made a late game run with great offense and defense to capture the victory, 63-60. That win was a display of the team’s defensive ability and clutch gene, but it still didn’t have anybody thinking they could knock off the 1-seed in the Midwest region in ACC heavyweight Virginia.
The Cavaliers had beaten the Orange earlier in the season by a pretty favorable margin. They were rolling and considered a national title favorite by many prior to the Elite 8. Then, Virginia saw themselves up 54-39 late in the second half of Sunday’s game. As Syracuse has done all season, however, they overcame adversity to finish the game on a 29-8 run to steal the victory by a score of 68-62. Again, it was clutch defense and offense (especially by Malachi Richardson) that carried the team.
When you compare the way Syracuse has won games to some of the other unexpected Final Four teams, the case can be made that they are the most unlikely team to ever reach this stage. George Mason only beat higher-seeded teams back in 2006 in during their run, but they didn’t have to overcome the late game deficits that Syracuse has this year. VCU actually had to win an extra game back in 2011 (in the First Four), but they were mostly dominant on their way to the Final Four, winning all but one game by double-digits. In short, even among unlikely winners, the Orange have battled back from massive deficits more than any other comparable squad.
While Syracuse is a strange program to call “Cinderella,” their run this season has been unlike anything we’ve ever seen in March Madness. Whether it’s because of their 13 losses (tied for the most ever by a Final Four team), their high-seed, their crazy comebacks, or the adversity that they have overcame this year, the Orange feel like the last team possible to be fighting for title this season.
If the team could do the unthinkable and become the first double-digit seed to win a championship, they will certainly go down as the greatest underdog in the history of college basketball. Regardless of what happens this weekend, however, the Orange have provided the story we were all craving this March and their run will forever remain in the history books of the game.