The recent move to the ACC has in many ways eliminated the days in which media members would complain that Syracuse plays a cupcake schedule prior to the beginning of conference play. The Big East used to be a gauntlet which is what the ACC has also become, but in the past the Orange would rarely leave New York State before the first of the year and a short plane flight to play at Madison Square Garden would be the longest trip from Central New York. Unless you truly understand the college game, the schedule is often influenced by what is best for current your personnel, non-conference agreements, and made for TV early season tournaments.
However, this season should prove that Syracuse has one of the tougher schedules (25th) in the nation. Now, certainly the exhibition season would be a negative if Le Moyne was able to wake up the echoes of an 82-79 victory in 2009. There will be some irony on the court November 2nd when Dolphins’ coach Patrick Beilein will take on Coach Boeheim. Patrick’s father (John) is the well-known head coach at Michigan, who coached against Syracuse while at West Virginia in the Big East, and led Le Moyne himself for ten seasons in the 1980s and 90s. There is a chance that Jim Boeheim could see both Beileins if the Orange faces Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in late November. How many times have a father and son coached against the same team in one season?
Story lines aside, Syracuse begins a difficult stretch from the end of November through the beginning of December. Their first regional game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament will be against Elon, which will simply be an appearance game for the Phoenix because due to tournament rules they will not move on. After that assured victory, the Orange will take on Charlotte a consistently competitive team in Conference USA and then either former rival UConn or Michigan waiting in the semi-finals. This tournament has in many ways become the “Maui Invitational of the East” as the field keeps growing with top teams and their fan bases enjoying celebrating Thanksgiving in the Bahamas.
The Battle 4 Atlantis should be a great early NCAA Tournament simulation for Syracuse, but the competition only heats up from there. The Wisconsin Badgers, coming off two consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances with a runner-up finish last season will surely be looking to take head coach Bo Ryan out in fashion as he announced this will be his last season. The game will be played at the Carrier Dome (12/2) as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and will be a tall order for the Orange facing a program with deep post-season experience.
Syracuse will then travel to Georgetown (12/5), St. John’s (12/3), and Pittsburgh (beginning of ACC play 12/30) in the month of December. These classic Big East rivalry games are nothing short of a significant challenge. The Hoyas will be licking their chops as SU’s number one rival having not squared off in two seasons since the Big East exodus and realignment and formation of conferences. That will be a difficult game to say the least on the road as John Thompson III always seems to steadily prod his team to a national ranking as the season progresses. St. John’s is always a wild card, considering the up and down nature of the program. But, you can bet that new head coach, St. John’s alum and Naismith Hall of Famer, Chris Mullin will show his players all the old footage they need to see to realize how important this rivalry was as well. Pittsburgh is never easy at The Zoo, no matter what conference the two teams play in, and Jamie Dixon always prepares his teams to battle the Orange.
If Syracuse can escape the first two months of the season with a 10-4 record, barring Coach Boeheim missing the Pittsburgh game due to the current suspension, it will be a solid accomplishment. The ACC schedule will continue to challenge the ‘Cuse at a high level as well. Although the media and fan base will make a lot out of Assistant Coach Mike Hopkins taking the helm for first nine games of ACC play; “Hop” has been on the coaching staff for 21 years, so if anyone is prepare for this, he is. He will also be the successor for the 2017-2018 season, so making a lot out of this transition may be overrated.
That being said, SU has preseason No. 1 North Carolina twice (1/9 & 2/16) on the schedule. But, the road schedule for the Orange is most worrisome in the ACC. After opening up on the road against Pitt, Miami is never an easy out in Coral Gables under head coach Jim Larranaga. The Orange play back-to-back road games in January against Duke (1/18) and Virginia (1/23), and then return home to face Notre Dame who made their presence felt last season winning the conference tournament and bringing Kentucky to the brink in the NCAAs. Syracuse will also travel to Louisville (1/17) and finish the season at Florida State (3/5), where many an ACC leader has found their seeding ruined due to a loss at the hands of the Seminoles. Pitt will also come to the Dome (2/20) with a strong North Carolina State team (2/27) to follow finishing out the home schedule.
A 21-10 season would a great feat for the Orange, and if they could go 11-7 or even at worst .500 in the conference it would be saying something for team with a lot of question marks. Syracuse still seems to be a #6-11 seed in the NCAA Tournament depending on ACC post-season success. Fans should be realistic this season in their expectations for the Orange, because you may see them sneak up on teams while playing with house money.