Syracuse lost their ACC Tournament opener today to Miami. That loss drops Syracuse to 18-14, and should have them right on the cutline. Joe Lunardi still says they are in, and various commentators on ESPN were convinced they are fine due to their big wins in conference.
I’m not so sure.
Syracuse is an extremely unusual case. The primary rationale for projecting them in the field is last year, when a 19-13 Syracuse team with a RPI of 68, who also lost in the ACC tournament opener (to Pittsburgh), not only got in, but got in relatively comfortably as a 10-seed before going to the Final Four.
The rationale for thinking they are in trouble is, well, every other form of precedent. Syracuse last year (68) was the lowest RPI to get an at-large bid since 2005, just behind USC (2011, 67), Marquette (2011, 64), NC State (2005, 63), and Stanford (2007. 63). They did so because of their big wins.
But where is the limit to that?
Here’s the case against Syracuse:
- RPI and History. The RPI was, depending on which source you check, between 75 and 80 before today’s loss. It was 79 on the NCAA’s own website. It will drop, and be somewhere between 80-85. That would be well below any other at-large choice has been in recent memory, and far lower than last year’s team entering Selection Sunday.
- Bad Losses. Are we at a point where bad losses and not playing road games non-conference are just completely irrelevant if you are a big program? Syracuse’s RPI is down there because they have several of them: at Boston College, at home vs St. John’s and Georgetown, Connecticut on a neutral court. They didn’t play a particularly tough non-conference schedule compared to other at-large candidates, yet went 8-5.
- Road games. Last year, Syracuse was 6-9 in road/neutral games before the tournament. This year, they are 2-11 after this loss.
- The Boeheim suspension factor. Let’s be honest, while there was much talk about whether the committee would or would not factor in his absence and the team playing worse a year ago, it likely played some role. That’s not a factor this year, so bad losses are less likely to be forgiven.
Another factor? The bubble is stronger, in terms of other teams that can have both a better RPI and put up big wins. Based on last year, you might say that Syracuse has a good shot against Illinois State, if that was the sole choice. But if bigger conference schools add a win, it doesn’t hold up.
Take another team seen as on the bubble: Vanderbilt. Like Syracuse, they have some bad losses (at Missouri vs at Boston College). Like Syracuse, they have a lot of losses (14). However, if you stack them up, Vanderbilt has road wins at Florida and Arkansas, a sweep of Florida, and has beaten the same number of tournament teams. In fact, both are 5-8 against teams I project in the field.
Then, you see that Vanderbilt is 6-9 on the road, has played more top 100 teams in the RPI (10-13 versus 8-10 for Syracuse), and is 7-1 against teams outside the Top 100, compared to a pretty sub-standard 10-4 for Syracuse. I don’t see how the Orangemen are a choice over teams like Vanderbilt.
Take Kansas State, who I currently have just out, right behind Syracuse. But if they win against Baylor again, they would have two road/neutral wins over Baylor, as good as any wins Syracuse can claim, along with wins over West Virginia and at Oklahoma State. Kansas State would have the much better RPI, way fewer bad losses, and a better road/neutral schedule. Syracuse’s one claim (look at our wins!) doesn’t carry it there.
Same with Iowa, if they were to make a run to the Big Ten semis. They would have six wins over tournament teams, more than Syracuse. The same is true of all the Big East bubble teams (who I have in ahead of Syracuse). Syracuse may be holding on, but it isn’t by much. There are a bunch of teams that could knock them out over the next few days, and it would be far from an injustice. A tournament team should have gone better than 18-14 against their schedule.