With the contest against the Duke Blue Devils less than 12 hours away, the hot topic over at TNIAAM is, “Is Syracuse basketball an elite program?” Unquestioned basketball royalty coming to town has made this game into a measuring stick of sorts for Orange fans (never mind that Jim Boeheim‘s squad has already beaten UNC and Indiana this season, teams that, while not having great years, are considered hoops blue bloods by just about everybody).
Personally, I’ve felt that the Orange have been elite for quite some time and my rationale is pretty easily broken down into three factors: titles, total wins and self-sustaining success.
Yeah, national titles. ’Chips.
It might seem odd that I’m starting my argument here when Syracuse has but a single NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Trophy adorning the lobby of the ‘Melo Center. It might seem that it makes Syracuse look bad in comparison to well recognized blue bloods like UCLA (11), Kentucky (8) and UNC (5). But does Syrcuse’s lonely trophy really place them so far below programs that have two or three?
Only 35 teams have won a title in the history of the NCAA Tournament. That’s 35 teams in 75 years. 14 teams have combined to win 42 of those 75 titles. 21 of those 35 have only a single title. .
I’m not trying to diminish the achievements of programs that have won it all more than once. As a long time fan of a team with only one title in three tries, I recognize how difficult it is. But that’s exactly why one title is enough. One title gets you to the door of the top tier of college basketball. Being in that class of 35 automatically puts a program in the “elite” discussion.
As important as championships are, though, they’re not everything. Look back at that list of titles again, at some of the names ahead of Syracuse on that list; Oklahoma State, San Francisco, Cincinnati. With respect to the great players that have come out of those schools, does anyone consider those programs elite?
I’ll answer for you. No, they don’t. And the reason is because they lack the overall wins necessary to be considered all-time greats. Riding legends like Oscar Robertson or Bill Russell to titles 40 or 50 years ago doesn’t mean as much when a program doesn’t do much when those players are gone. Cincinnati doesn’t crack the top 20 in all-time wins. Okie State, not the top 30. San Francisco isn’t in the top 50.
The same thing can said about a program like Michigan State, who many modern fans will insist is an elite program. Those fans fail to recall that the Spartans were a terrible team until Magic Johnson showed up in 1978 and were terrible again as soon as he left until Tom Izzo arrived. The program is only 36th in all-time wins. Do the couple of titles Sparty has outweigh decades of mediocrity?
On the other hand, where is Syracuse? 5th. Nestled right in among the basketball blue bloods. Right behind Duke. Ahead of UCLA and Indiana. You don’t win 1874 games by being a crappy program. And if we’re going to argue that the championships programs like UCLA and Kentucky won 50, 60, 70 years ago carry weight, then the same applies to all the wins a program has over its entire history. When considering all-time elite programs, you have to take into account their entire history. In that regard, Syracuse’s win total is an undeniable asset.
This is where my case for Syracuse’s elite status gets a bit fuzzy in that I’m dealing with an intangible, subjective thing. When I think of top tier programs, I think of programs that have self-sustaining success because they’re elite and are elite because they have self-sustaining success. Indulge me an anecdote.
Back in high school, a friend of mine was admitted to Harvard. When I asked him if he was going to matriculate there he said, “Dude (we said ‘dude’ back then), it’s Harvard.” I think the same is true with basketball powers. Players go to UNC precisely because it’s UNC. Player go to Kansas because it’s Kansas. It’s the brand recognition, if you will, that comes with the titles and the sustained success. It’s something that transcends time and coaching staffs and, to me, is the key element to what makes a program “elite”.
So, the question becomes does Syracuse have that self-sustaining success? On the one hand, you have a highly rated recruit like DaJuan Coleman spurning Kentucky to don the Orange. Syracuse fans of my age will remember that Hakim Warrick only came to the ‘Cuse because Julius Hodge decided to go to N.C. State. And it wasn’t as if Hak was undecided. He waited and crossed his fingers that there would be a spot available for him (I think all Orange fans agree that it turned out pretty well all-around).
Then again, Nerlens Noel did a reverse DC2 and chose Kentucky over Syracuse. Local product Greg Paulus was a Dookie all the way, to the point where Jim Boeheim’s scholarship offer was a mere formality. Of course there’s only so much talent to go around. Every elite program can’t get every top recruit, despite the fact that is seems like that very thing happens for schools like UNC, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky.
Duke, to me, is an interesting case. If you really look at the histories of the two programs, they’re basically identical. They’re both small-ish private schools that had average basketball programs until icons of the sport took over and turned them into powers (Duke was 1117-602 (.539) before Mike Krzyzewski took over and Syracuse was 955-516 (.540) before Jim Boeheim). Yet when the question of self-sustaining success arises, neither program really has an answer.
Most Syracuse fans would say that Jim Boeheim is Syracuse basketball. The same can be said of Krzyzewski at Duke. Those two coaches are the biggest reason their respective programs have reached their current heights. And unlike their blue-blood counterparts like Kansas, UNC and Kentucky, who have had sustained success under multiple coaches, no one really knows what will happen when Jim B and Coach K finally hang them up. Will Duke still be DUKE? Will Syracuse still be SYRACUSE?
Elite or Not Elite? That is the Question
So, let’s look back at it all. Duke is universally considered an elite program. They have titles. They have the wins, but some question remains on whether they’ll be able to sustain success with just the Duke brand, as it were, once the iconic coach who’s lead them is gone.
Syracuse is pretty much exactly the same. They’ve got a title, though admittedly not as many as the Blue Devils. They’ve got the wins, though, again, short of Duke’s total. And the same questions surrounding Duke’s sustainability apply to Syracuse. To me, it stands to reason that if Duke is an elite program, then Syracuse is too.
What do you think? Love it? Hate it? Leave your comments below.
Chris Daughtrey is the creator and author of Bleeding Orange. He is a contributor at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician and at Atlantic Coast Confidential. You can connect with him on Twitter @OrangeBlood 44 or search #OrangeBlood.