Syracuse
(Scott Schild/The Post Standard via Associated Press)

Yesterday, No. 11 Syracuse defeated No. 3 West Virginia in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, 75-72. Behind hot shooting and tight defense, the Orange jumped out to a quick lead and fought off a second-half WVU comeback to come out on top. Buddy Boeheim continued to torch the nets with 25 points.

With the win, Syracuse qualified for their 10th Sweet Sixteen since 2000. They also earned my designation of the ‘Most Infuriating College Basketball Program of All Time.’ Here’s a breakdown of Syracuse’s five-step cycle that they follow year after year.

Step 1: Use the Same Zone Defense You’ve Used for 25+ Years

Head coach Jim Boeheim has become synonymous with the 2-3 zone defense. He’s been exclusively using the zone since the 1990s, which makes it absolutely maddening that it still works. In other sports, football for example, you have to keep innovating because of how fast other teams learn your systems and beat them. Boeheim has gotten away with using the same defense for almost 30 years and somehow it still gives most teams problems. It’s both genius and enormously frustrating.

Any coach who checks a Bracketology projection throughout the season and notes any remote possibility that they might be matched up with Syracuse should teach their team how to beat the zone. That’s what it’s come to.

Step 2: Get Absolutely Obliterated During the Conference Schedule

The fun feature of Syracuse’s zone is that it only seems to work during the NCAA Tournament and no time other than that. Since joining the ACC in 2013, here are the year-by-year final conference standings for ‘Cuse:

  • 2013-14: 2nd
  • 2014-15: 8th
  • 2015-16: 9th
  • 2016-17: 7th
  • 2017-18: 10th
  • 2018-19: 6th
  • 2019-20: 8th

Other than their first year in the conference, Syracuse have not finished higher than 6th in the ACC. They haven’t been to an ACC Tournament Final. Somehow ACC teams absolutely obliterate the Orange during the regular season year after year, but everyone suddenly has no clue how to beat a 25-year-old zone defense once March rolls around. Some of that might be because ACC teams are “used to it,” but my main point is that teams should know exactly what they’re getting with Syracuse and should be able to gameplan for it relatively easily.

I don’t even think West Virginia was that bad against the 2-3 last night, other than maybe the first 8-10 minutes. But the early minutes of the game that it took them to adapt is what killed them, plus they didn’t hit their shots once they discovered how to get guys open.

Step 3: Be a Bubble Team All Year Long, Get a Double Digit Seed in NCAA Tournament

Syracuse always seem to sneak their way into March Madness. This year was no different. After a ton of speculation about whether or not the Orange would play past the ACC Conference Tournament, Syracuse not only made the field, but they avoided a First Four game. The Selection Committee gave them a No. 11 seed and matched them up with San Diego State out of the Mountain West.

Double-digit seed Syracuse is different from every other team with such a designation. When receiving a double-digit seed, they are 9-2 all time. Their past success in March almost guarantees that they will get into the tournament any time they are on the bubble.

Step 4: Win Multiple NCAA Tournament Games Against Better Teams

For better or worse, the nature of March Madness is that it gives all 68 teams a chance to win a national championship even if they had a horrible regular season. The best team doesn’t always win in tournament games. That’s exactly what happened with West Virginia. The Mountaineers are an objectively better team than Syracuse, but Syracuse outplayed them in their matchup.

As a college basketball fan, upsets are fun but they also feel a little unjust sometimes. I want to see good teams rewarded for their seasons at least a little bit, not strangled by the zone defense of a team that went 9-7 in a down ACC. Maybe that’s not something most fans can relate to, but if Syracuse was actually one of the best teams in college basketball this season, they would have proven that in conference play.

Step 5: Repeat

That’s Boeheim’s formula for success. Zone defense, not great regular season, get into NCAA Tournament anyway with a double-digit seed, win a couple games, rinse and repeat. It’s super counterintuitive and frustrating as a college basketball fan, but for whatever reason it works. Might as well take a Sharpie to your bracket if you see Syracuse in there as a double-digit seed. Seems like the 2-3 zone is going to continue covering up for bad regular seasons and no opposing coach will figure how to beat it until the end of time.

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