Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Big East Begins - What It Will Take

Syracuse has completed its Out of Conference season at 10-3. It was not a great non-conference season, but it was not a bad one either. They did put themselves into a better position this year than at the same time last year for post season consideration.

The Orange are currently 10-3, with an RPI ranking of 15, and a Strength of Schedule ranking of 4 (hard to believe isn’t it). With roughly 60% of the season left, I wouldn’t focus too hard on those numbers, as they could change significantly as those teams play their conference games. However, it does at least give us an idea where the team is.

The three losses were against three teams in the top 25 of the RPI (Ohio State, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island). There’s nothing good about those losses, and two were on our home court, which does hurt a little. However, being losses to top 25 RPI teams does not hurt you come selection time; it just does not hurt. What will hurt is if any of those three teams start to fall apart; so Orange fans, make sure you cheer these three teams on!

The Orange have no impressive wins at this point. Virginia is the best win at #67 in the RPI. Two things about that win: the Cavaliers RPI will likely go up as the enter ACC conference play, and it was a road victory for the Orange, which will help. If Virginia does fairly well in the ACC this season, this could be a big win for the Orange come selection time. The second best win (so far) is Washington at #70. Again, their RPI will likely go up as they enter PAC TEN conference play, though not as much as Virginia. Washington was a win on a neutral court, so that will help.

The Orange won all the other games they should have won, so there are no ‘dings’ on their record.

So what do they need to do to lock themselves into a NCAA bid? I’ve run through the conference schedule and I’m showing the Orange are going to need to be 11-7 in conference play, 21-10 entering the Big East tournament, plus go at least two rounds in the BET… so 22-11 by seasons end. I do not think 20 or 21 wins is going to do it for them, unless it’s the right 20 wins.

The Big East schedule will break down into two parts for the Orange. The NCAA considers how you performed in your last 10 games, and I think Syracuse will need to be at least 6-4 in those games, two of which would be the Big East Tournament (where I’m saying they need to be 1-1). So they will need to finish out 5-3 in the Big East Conference. They’ll need to start out winning 6 of their first 10.

The Big East currently has 4 teams in the AP and the ESPN/USA Today polls. They are Georgetown (7,7), Marquette (10, 11), Pittsburgh (13, 13) and Villanova (17,16). West Virginia just dropped out of both polls, and Louisville and Notre Dame received some votes in both. Note that Syracuse is receiving no votes right now, so they are well off the radar of the voters at this point. That is something to consider; perception is reality.

In terms of RPI positioning, there are four teams in the Big East (other than Syracuse) with top 25 RPI. Those are Marquette (5), Pittsburgh (7), Georgetown (18) and West Virginia (23). Syracuse plays South Florida, Georgetown and Villanova each twice this year, so two shots at the Hoyas and Wildcats help.

Also, if Syracuse loses a game that I label a ‘must win’ because of its ease, then I believe they must win one of the tough games I indicate they could lose. You’ve got to wipe those bad losses off the resume by adding a good win.

Syracuse’s Big East schedule is weaker up front, stronger down the stretch. This does help a young Syracuse team which needs to mature, and get inaugurated into the Big East. It also means if they struggle earlier, they can still come on strong at the end and pick up a lot of impressive victories. The Orange’s first ten games are against St. Johns, South Florida, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Rutgers, Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, DePaul and Villanova (2nd time).

The only thing I do not like about the early schedule is having Villanova twice. I would have liked the Orange to have played them later in the season for the second game, so a more experienced team could have faced the Wildcats. But you’ve got to play the hand dealt, right?

Of the first ten games, four are ‘must wins’. The four easiest Big East games they should have are Cincinnati (4-7, away), St. Johns (6-5, home), DePaul (4-7, away) and Rutgers (7-5, home). That’s four wins.

I think they need to split with Villanova. Nova’s preseason schedule does not help the Orange. They played nobody, and their SOS is only 160th, yet they are ranked in both polls. Nova is a good team, a dangerous team, but their RPI (right now) will play havoc on the Orange, especially if Syracuse loses to them twice. A win against Nova is impressive. That makes five wins.

The Orange then need to win one of the following games: South Florida (h), West Virginia (a), Georgetown (a), and Providence (h). Georgetown, on January 18th, a veteran team with lots of talent, would be a very difficult win for the Orange at this point in the season. So I think a win over WVU, Providence or South Florida is more likely. If the Orange can’t split with Villanova, then they need to win two of those three games. That brings the Orange to six wins. Their season record would be 16-7 at that point.

The second part of the Big East schedule is the eight game closing stretch. There are some tough games in that bunch, with Seton Hall and South Florida the easiest of the group. The schedule goes UConn (h), South Florida (a), Georgetown (h), Louisville (a), Notre Dame (h), Pittsburgh (a), Seton Hall (a), and Marquette (h). At this point in the season, the Orange will need to do two things: finish strong (a criteria for the NCAA), and get some big wins (another criteria for the NCAA), and the schedule is set for it. The Orange will be more experienced by that point, so that should help.

I think Syracuse will need to win five of those eight games. That’s a lot to ask. But, keep in mind, that prior to entering this eight game stretch, Nova is possibly the only ‘big’ win on their resume (if they’ve pulled it off). So they need those wins. I think the Orange will need to beat Seton Hall and South Florida (both road games against solid but average teams). So they then need three wins against UConn, Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Marquette.

Pitt is going to be an unfair game for the Orangemen. The Panther’s playmaker (and heart) Levance Fields is out for 8-12 weeks because of a broken foot. So Pitt will likely struggle for a few weeks, and that will drop their ranking. Fields will be coming back right about a week before Syracuse plays them, and Pitt will likely get a big boost for his return, and perhaps return to their top 10 form (though their record and RPI won’t reflect it). Plus Syracuse plays Pitt down at the Pederson Center, never an easy place to play. So it will be a game that may look easier on paper than it actually is.

If the Orange pull off the 5-3 record in the last eight, then they be poised well for the Big East Tournament. The Orange will be 11-7 in regular conference play, 21-10 overall. If they win one, lose one in the Big East, they would then be 22-11.

At that point the Orange will have finished the season 6-4 in their last 10, have big wins against 4 good teams, and no bad losses on the season. I think that is a guaranteed bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Orange could make it with less, but they are risking bubble status, and the performance of how other teams do this season. If Syracuse were to go 5-5 in their first 10 Big East games, and then finish out 6-2 that would obviously work (and in fact, be much better… but that’s a tougher accomplishment). I think a 7-3 start in Big East play, with a 3-5 finish would be disastrous.

Obviously a deep run in the Big East Tournament always helps, and it eliminates the mistakes and lost opportunities made during the regular season. But I’m not going to forecast what the Orange need to do to make the NCAA by assuming they’ll make a BET run. The Orange may get some extra consideration this year from (1) the NCAA feeling they need to compensate for last year’s decision and (2) Syracuse putting a road game on their out-of-conference schedule. However, I would not count on any sympathy from an organization that has shown itself to be highly unreasonable year after year.


Jeff said...

It's really hard to believe that Syracuse has an out of conference strength of schedule ranking of 4. Also hard to believe we have an RPI of 15 after what seemed like a semi-disaster pre-conference schedule.

Also, I thought I obsessed about games yet to be played. I usually do that with 5 games left though. You sir, put me to shame.

OrangeRay said...

I was surprised how high Syracuse's SOS was at this point. Part of that goes to show how random the whole SOS is. It is not like Boeheim went out and deliberately upgraded his schedule this year; the addition of Virginia as a road game was the only effort made.

Of course, as the preseason teams get into their own conference play, especially the mid majors and smaller schools, their respective RPIs will automatically start to drop, and so SU's pre-season SOS will change.

But for now, #4 isn't shabby at all.