To keep the semantics clear, I am referring to which team was the best overall team for the pre-NIT season. I am not referring which team performed the best in the NIT tournament, nor which team was playing the best when the NIT began. There would be different answers to each of those.
The 1981-1982 Orangemen were the 12th best NIT team for Syracuse. The Orangemen were led by junior tri-captains Erich Santifer (17.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Leo Rautins (13.3 ppg, 5.2 apg, 5.9 rpg) and Tony ‘Red’ Bruin (14.0 ppg). Freshman Andre Hawkins shared the center position with sophomore Sean Kerins. Gene Waldron ran the point, though Rautins ran the offense from his power forward position. Ron Payton was a valuable sixth man with 10.7 ppg. Unfortunately, the Orangemen were in very competitive Big East conference, and lacked strong rebounders. The Orangemen finished the regular season 15-11, 7-7 in the Big East conference, and struggled down the stretch going 2-4 in the last six games. The Orangemen then lost in the first round of the Big East Tournament, dropping their record to 15-12. The Orangemen were grateful to be in the NIT that season, where they would beat St. Peters 84-75 in the first round before losing to Bradley 95-81 in the second round.
The 1980-1981 Orangemen were the 11th best NIT team. Senior center Danny Schayes led the team with 14.6 ppg and 8.3 rebounds. Senior Eddie Moss ran the offense and the defense, with 5.4 assists per game, and Marty Headd was the perimeter shooter averaging 11.9 ppg. A trio of talented sophomores were the remaining significant portions of the team: Erich Santifer (14.0 ppg), Leo Rautins (9.3 ppg) and Tony Bruin (11.8 ppg). The Orangemen went 15-11 during the regular season, 6-8 in the Big East conference, and struggled 1-4 in the last five regular season games. Headd would break his wrist in practice right before the Big East tournament, moving Bruin into the starting lineup. The Orangemen would make a strong run in the Big East tournament, winning the title in a dramatic triple overtime victory over Villanova, and running their record to 18-11. The Big East did not have an automatic berth that year, and the NCAA decided not to extend an invitation to Syracuse. Syracuse fans were very upset at the snub. The Orangemen were determined to prove the NCAA wrong. They would beat Marquette, Holy Cross, Michigan, and Purdue in the NIT to advance to the finals. Syracuse would play a tough game against Tulsa, eventually losing in the NIT Finals.
The 1970-1971 Orangemen were the 10th best NIT team. The team was lead by Big Bill Smith with 22.7 ppg and 14 rebounds. Junior Greg Kohls emerged as a tremendous outside scoring threat with 22.1 points per game. Senior Tom Green ran the offense, and two hustling but undersized forwards joined the squad: Mike Lee (13.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Mark Wadach (7.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg). The Orangemen would go 19-6 during the regular season, including going 9-1 down the stretch. The Orangemen had not been to the postseason since 1967, so fans were excited about the opportunity. Despite 27 points from Smith, the Orange would lose to Michigan 82-76 in the first round.
The 1949-1950 Orangemen were the 9th best team, finishing the regular season 17-8. They were lead by junior guard Jack Kiley with 16.3 ppg. Kiley was supported offensively by Dick Suprunowicz, Bob Savage and Ed Miller. Tom Huggins, Tom Jockle and Mike Stark rounded out the team. The NIT was a prestigious tournament at the time, and many top teams chose the NIT over the NCAA. Syracuse was honored to go to the NIT. They played highly favored Long Island University in the first round and surprisingly beat them 80-52 behind 21 points from Jack Kiley. In the second round the Orangemen faced Bradley, the #1 ranked team in the nation. The Orangemen would lose that game 78-66.
The 1996-1997 Orangemen were the 8th best team. They were lead by Senior Otis Hill who pounded the middle with 15.7 ppg and 6.1 ppg. Junior swingman Todd Burgan averaged 15.1 ppg; sharpshooters Jason Cipolla (13.2 ppg) and Marius Janulis (9.3 ppg) provided perimeter scoring, and freshman Jason Hart ran the offense with 5.8 apg. The Orangemen finished the regular season 18-11, with a 9-9 conference record. The beat Notre Dame 84-66 in the Big East tournament and lost to Villanova in the 2nd round 80-70, raising their record to 19-12, 6-4 in their last 10. The Orangemen and their fans were severely shocked when they were denied an NCAA bid. No Big East team had ever been denied an NCAA bid with 18+ regular season wins, and the Orangemen had been to the National Championship game the previous season. Yet the Orangemen found themselves going to the NIT. The Orangemen found it difficult to mentally prepare for the game and easily lost to Florida State 82-67.
The 1963-1964 team was the 7th best team. The Orangemen were led by the dynamic sophomore Dave Bing who electrified Syracuse fans with his 22.2 ppg and 8.2 rpg. West Point transfer Chuck Richards brought 22.0 ppg and 9.5 rpg from the center position. Juniors Richie Duffy and Phil Schoff contributed as did a quartet of sophomores: Norm Goldsmith, Sam Penceal, Jim Boeheim and Frank Nicoletti. The Syracuse program was on the rebound from the darkest period in the schools history, and fans were excited to get the post season. Dave Bing would play well in the first round scoring 31 points, though the Orange would fall short to New York University 77-68.
The 2001-2002 Orangemen were the 6th best team, and a very difficult team to rank. A very talented team that totally collapsed under the immense strain of internal personal issues. The Orangemen were led by talented sharpshooting senior Preston Shumpert with 20.7 ppg and 6.1 rpg. DeSean Williams added 15.9 ppg and 4.1 apg. Kueth Duany brought a solid 12.2 ppg and 5.3 rpg. Sophomores Hakim Warrick and James Thues were valuable members, and freshman Craig Forth plugged the middle. The Orangemen would start the season 14-2 and rise up to #7 in the polls in January. Then internal strife took over; too much in-fighting on the team. The Orangemen went 3-7 over their last ten games, and would lose in the first round of the Big East tournament to Villanova 78-64. The Orangemen were denied an NCAA berth despite having a 20-11 record and going 9-7 in the Big East. It was difficult to criticize the non-selection with the total collapse of the team. However, the Orangemen seemed to overcome their problems and played solid basketball in the NIT. They would beat St. Bonaventure, Butler and Richmond to advance to the NIT quarter finals. Shumpert was hot, with 36 points against Butler. The Orangemen would lose to South Carolina 66-59 in the quarter finals and then lose 65-54 to Temple in the consolation game.
I would rank the current Syracuse squad, 2007-2008 as the 5th best NIT team. The Orangemen had a lot of injury and personnel issues, forcing the squad to play with 7 players for most the season, virtually all of them first year players. Freshman Jonny Flynn and Donte’ Greene would lead the way, along with sophomores Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku, and junior college transfer Kris Onganaet. The Orange finished the regular season 18-12, and lost in the first round of the Big East tournament dropping their record to 18-13. Not much argument about being excluded from the NCAA tournament. The Orangemen had their opportunities to win the right games, and fell short. They are currently making a good run in the NIT, winning their first two. We’ll see how far they can go. They are definitely a talented team, one short on experience and depth, but high on skill and athletic ability.
The 2006-2007 Orangemen were the 4th best team. Led by seniors Demetris Nichols (18.9 ppg), Terrence Roberts (8.9 ppg), Darryl Watkins (8.1 ppg) and sophomore Eric Devendorf (14.8 ppg), the team finished the regular season 21-9, 10-6 in the Big East conference. The Orangemen would win their first game in the Big East and lose their second game, bringing their record to 22-10. To the shock of Syracuse fans (and many fans across the country) the Orangemen would be denied an NCAA bid, and would become constant talk for that season and the following season on the snub. The Orangemen would play well in the NIT, despite the fact that Terrence Roberts was struggling with an injured knee. They would beat South Alabama at the Carrier Dome before an NIT record crowd, and then beat San Diego State 80-64. They would lose their next game to Clemson74-70.
The third best team was the 1971-1972 team. This was Roy’s Runts, a collection of hustling players with skill and talent, but not much height. The backcourt was strong with senior Greg Kohls shooting out the lights with 26.7 points per game and flashy Dennis DuVal with 15.8 ppgs. Juniors Mike Lee (18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Mark Wadach (9.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg) played solid up front and undersized sophomore Bob Dooms played very well at center (7.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg). The team would finish the season 21-5, going 9-1 down the stretch. There were hopes for an NCAA bid, but the NIT became the option. Syracuse would win in the first round, but lose to a very talented and very tall Maryland team in the second round 71-65.
The 1966-1967 team was the 2nd best squad. A strong trio led the team: senior Rick Dean controlled the middle with 18.0 ppg and 9.1 rpg, junior Vaughn Harper grabbed all the rebounds with 14.3 rpg, along with 16.3 ppg, and junior George Hicker was the sharp shooter with 18.6 ppg. The backcourt was handled well by smooth shooting Richie Cornwall and good ball handler Steve Ludd. The Orangemen loved to run the ball, and they ran it will. The team was 19-2 and ranked #8 in the polls before they lost three of their last four games. Those losses dropped the Orange to 20-5, and cost the Orangemen an NCAA bid. The team faced a talented New Mexico team in the first round; the Lobos loved to slow the game down, providing an interesting contrast of styles. The Orangemen would lose that battle in a close lost 66-64.
The 1945-1946 team was the best Syracuse NIT team. This was a post war team, with a mix of freshmen and war veterans. The star of the team was veteran Bullet Billy Gabor, averaging 15.2 points per game. Freshman Royce Newell was second on the squad with 309 points and provided a strong center presence. Andy Mogish was the strong rebounding presence, and fellow war veterans Lew Spicer, Roy Peters and Larry Crandall provided depth. Freshman Mike Stark was the defensive spark. The team scored 106 points on 12/8/1945 against Oswego Teachers College to be the first Syracuse team to break the 100 point barrier. The Orangemen would outscore their opposition 1651 to 1044, an average margin of 23.3 ppg. Syracuse finished the regular season 23-3, and was honored to go to the NIT, the first post season bid in Syracuse basketball history. They would lose to Muhlenburg 47-41 in the first round.