For teams like North Carolina, Villanova and Oklahoma, an appearance in the 2016 Final Four raised few eyebrows. They began the college basketball season ranked in the top 10, and entered the NCAA Tournament with lofty expectations as high seeds.
Syracuse, on the other hand, sneaked into the field of 68 with a 19-13 record, and the most die-hard Orange supporters couldn’t have imagined what was to follow after the team somehow had their name called on Selection Sunday. While Syracuse has traditionally been among the best teams in the nation, this year's squad is arguably the most contentious Cinderella team the tournament has ever seen.
"We had a lot of doubters," Syracuse freshman Tyler Lydon said on Sunday night. "A lot of people who believed we shouldn't even be in this tournament. I'm sure there are still a lot of people who think that. But we know what we can do as a team and that's all that matters."
The decision to make the Orange a No.10 seed in the Midwest region was probably the most controversial choice made by the selection committee. After finishing 10th in the ACC standings and losing five of their last six games before the tournament, Syracuse was a huge longshot to advance this deep. The Orange were, after all, tied for No. 241 in field-goal percentage (42.5).
Syracuse entered the tournament with 150/1 championship odds, ranking behind 31 other teams. They were given 25/1 odds to win their region, looking to become the first No.10 seed in history to reach the Final Four.
Potentially the biggest obstacle in Syracuse’s way was eliminated when No.15 Middle Tennessee State upset No.2 Michigan State, a favorite in the Midwest and the second favorite in the entire tournament. Syracuse breezed past MTSU by 25 points in the second round after they beat No.7 Dayton by 19 points in their first tournament game.
But even though they faced a No.15 seed on their way to the Sweet 16, Syracuse’s path to the Final Four was far from easy. The Orange were underdogs in three of their four games, and they needed two late-game comebacks on the second weekend of the tournament. Syracuse used their full-court press to come back from a nine-point deficit in the final seven minutes against No.11 Gonzaga, who defeated a No.6 and a No.3 seed on their way to the Sweet 16. The same press helped the Orange top No.1 Virginia, who had a 16-point lead in the second half.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 28, 2016
Syracuse had lost to Virginia by eight points earlier in the season, and the Cavaliers finished four games ahead of the Orange in the ACC. Coach Jim Boeheim’s team was tied for ninth in the conference, during a frustrating season that featured a few head-scratching losses.
The Orange suffered eight defeats to tournament teams, as well as a loss to the No.16 Louisville Cardinals, who weren't eligible for postseason play. But Syracuse also lost comfortably to rival Georgetown, who finished with a sub-.500 record, and they were unable to beat St. John’s, who went just 1-17 in the Big East. Both losses came without Boeheim, who was suspended for nine games because of NCAA violations that prevented the team from competing in the postseason last year.
Without Boeheim on the sidelines, Syracuse went 4-5, suffering losses that nearly kept them out of the NCAA Tournament. But the team had a few marquee wins at the start of the season that might have been a sign of what was to come during March Madness.
Syracuse won their first six games of the season, culminating with victories over Connecticut and Texas A&M. Defeating two teams that would both go on to win games in the tournament, the Orange reached No.14 in the AP Top 25 Poll. Syracuse was out of the rankings a week later, but they proved early on that they had the talent to go deep in the tournament.
“We beat good teams, and teams like North Carolina and Virginia on the road, we were right there,” Boeheim told ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” on Monday morning. “So I think this team showed that they could play, and I’m glad the committee rewarded them with the schedule we played and the wins that we had, and we’ve been able to play at the same level in this tournament.”
Boeheim calls Michael Gbinije the “most improved player that I’ve had at Syracuse,” and the senior is averaging 17.6 points, 4.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game. Freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon were the team’s two biggest recruits last year, and they have come up big when the Orange have needed it the most. Richardson scored 21 second-half points against Virginia, and Lydon has made key shots in crunch time while blocking 17 shots in the last three games.
With fifth-year senior guard Trevor Cooney and junior forward Tyler Roberson also playing key roles, the Orange find themselves just two wins away from their first title since 2003.
Despite their impressive run to the Final Four, oddsmakers don’t give Syracuse a good chance to make more history.
They are nine-point underdogs against No.1 North Carolina on Saturday, and Bovada.lv gives the Orange 8/1 odds to cut down the nets in the national championship game. None of the three previous double-digit seeds that reached the Final Four made it to the national title game, losing by an average of 11.3 points.
No matter the result against North Carolina, this season will go down as one of Boeheim’s best coaching jobs in his 40 seasons as the head of the basketball program. But after a close loss to the Tar Heels in the regular season, Syracuse is ready for a second shot at the favorites in the Final Four.
"They’re probably the best team right now in the country, based on what they’ve done winning the ACC Tournament and the way they’ve played in this tournament," Boeheim said. "But we’re very confident that we did play with them, and we’re looking forward to another opportunity."