SYRACUSE, N.Y. — After a second consecutive setback at the Carrier Dome at the hands of a mid-major program, Jim Boeheim had a reminder for those who picked his Orange to contend for an ACC title this season.
“This is the same team that lost 14 games last season,” Boeheim said following the loss to Buffalo on Tuesday night.
The expectations were lofty, but not just from the media and the rabid ‘Cuse fan base. Boeheim seemed more upbeat than usual at ACC Media Day down in Charlotte, with five returning starters back from a team that won a trio of games in the NCAA tournament. Maybe we misread his excitement, and it was solely about the addition of a freshman named Buddy Boeheim.
“The expectations are all based on that we won three games last year,” Boeheim quipped.
This year was supposed to be the year that the ‘Cuse returned to true relevance in the regular season instead of sneaking into the NCAA tournament and providing some surprising fireworks. The last four seasons, Boeheim & Co. have a combined league mark of 36-36, which has resulted in finishes between seventh and 10th in the ACC standings. Syracuse shocked everyone with a Final Four appearance in 2016 and again last season with a Sweet 16.
This year came with so much promise. Maybe Syracuse fans could have some wire-to-wire entertainment instead of sweating it out on Selection Sunday. Instead, the Orange lost to a mediocre UConn team at Madison Square Garden in mid-November, then took another L against an Oregon Ducks squad that has had setbacks against Texas Southern, Iowa and Houston. There was a built-in excuse for those losses, with starting point guard and senior Frank Howard out of the lineup.
Now Howard is back, and the Orange have dropped consecutive home games to Old Dominion and Buffalo. In all fairness, ODU could wind up winning Conference USA and Buffalo entered Tuesday’s game ranked No. 14 in the AP Top 25.
“I think we have better players,” Bulls coach Nate Oats said after the 71-59 win.
It’s difficult to argue right now.
Syracuse, which began the season ranked 16th in the AP Poll, was completely outplayed in the second half by Buffalo. The Bulls were quicker, tougher (mentally and physically) and more effective — on both ends of the court. While Syracuse star Tyus Battle performed a virtual disappearing act, Buffalo’s C.J. Massinburg continued to produce in the bright lights, and even earned the nickname Assassin-Burg from one person on twitter.
Syracuse managed a total of 23 points in the final 20 minutes.
“You can’t win if you can’t score,” Boeheim said. “And we can’t score.”
Battle came into the game averaging 18.5 points per game and Oshae Brissett had nearly identical numbers from his freshman season. Howard is still getting back to 100 percent after missing the first four games of the season. East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes has been a nice addition, and Boeheim admitted that the big men on the roster haven’t improved at all from last season. Center Paschal Chukwu is averaging just 4.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
In typical Boeheim fashion, his post-game news conference was entertaining, this time largely due to his sincerity regarding the status of his team.
“We’re not good,” Boeheim said.
“This is what we are,” he added. “Your record is what you are.”
The record is 7-4, with one win of the resume variety. That was a 10-point win in Columbus against an Ohio State team that has gotten the most out of its talent thus far. Sure, it’s a ‘Cuse team that will have no shortage of resume opportunities playing in an ACC which could wind up getting eight or more teams in the NCAA tournament, but it’s clear that Boeheim is concerned whether this team — one that he had high hopes for prior to the season — will get it together.
“You can talk all you want about it,” Boeheim said. “But we’re just not good.”
But there’s always hope for the Orange — especially come March.