On Saturday, Syracuse will play its first meaningless game of the season.
Wait, that’s not entirely true. The game means something for Pittsburgh, a team clinging to the NCAA Tournament fringe but more than likely host an NIT game.
In that way, the Panthers aren’t all that different from Syracuse, another team that at least until Wednesday still had the slimmest of hopes of participating in March Madness.
The difference, though, is that Syracuse isn’t playing any more games that really matter. Instead, Syracuse, facing an NCAA investigation, elected to get a head start on its potential sanctions by forfeiting its chance at any postseason. No NCAA Tournament. No ACC Tournament. No NIT. No CBI.
Pittsburgh still has an opportunity to do what Syracuse cannot. Maybe Pitt will win the NCAA Tournament. Maybe Pitt will beat Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia. That’s all highly unlikely, for sure, but Panthers coach Jamie Dixon’s team can still try to pull off the feat.
No matter how much Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim tries to dress this up as a self-imposed punishment with teeth or tries to acknowledge mistakes, this move is as cynical as they come.
Syracuse, as an institution, decided to make the lost season official. The timing is, to put it mildly, convenient.
Syracuse has lost three of its last five and eked out a two-point win against lowly Virginia Tech on Tuesday. Hope is pretty slim for a meaningful postseason. This will probably be only the second Syracuse team to fail to win 20 games since 1982.
No question, Syracuse did the smart thing as a program, sacrificing what’s likely to be a mediocre postseason in hopes that by the time the Orange are ready to be a more realistic contender in future the sanctions will be done and gone.
“You can’t wait and say, ‘We’ll take it next year,’” Boeheim told host Chris McManus on his weekly coach’s radio show. “You have to take it.”
That’s not entirely true. Syracuse could have waited out the NCAA or could have announced a postseason ban for 2015-16. Syracuse could have announced the ban before the season — the investigation concluded in October — before it became evident the Orange would fall well below their own standard.
Instead, Syracuse elected to change the conditions of this season. The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy has gone so far as to call it “a disgrace that rises to the highest level of all that is untoward in college athletics.”
Denying guys like Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament — a goal they thought they had until this week — is “reprehensible,” DeCourcy writes.
Indeed, the players are the primary losers here. Not Boeheim, whose march to 1,000 wins will only be marginally impacted. Not the program, which gets to avoid a likely NIT invite so a better team can play in the NCAA Tournament.
Boeheim tried to save face this week, but in some ways his defense makes the curiously timed self-imposed sanctions seem worse.
Boeheim says he believes the self-imposed punishment indeed has teeth. Syracuse still has a shot at the NCAA Tournament, he says, and playing in the NIT and ACC Tournament is still a chance for his young team to improve.
The former is a long shot. Syracuse is ranked No. 71 in the RPI with only two wins against teams in the top 90 — No. 47 Iowa and No. 62 Long Beach State. His team is woefully thin with the season-ending injury to freshman forward Chris McCullough. And his team, already 15-7, has the toughest portion of the ACC schedule ahead of it. The Orange still have to face Duke twice, plus Notre Dame on the road and Virginia and Louisville at home.
The latter, the extra practice time and experience in a one-and-done situation, is a legitimate sanction for the Orange.
But who loses if Syracuse doesn’t get those extra games or practices? Syracuse has only two top 100 prospects for the 2015 draft, according to DraftExpress.com. One is out for the rest of the season with injury. The other is Christmas, a senior. Both are second-rounders right now at best.
Syracuse though has a handful of juniors and underclassmen who could become pros or solid college players. Even Boeheim says NIT experience could be good for them. Instead, the Orange's season ends March 7 at NC State.
“I saw Hakim Warrick grow up in the NIT when he was a freshman,” Boeheim told McManus. “He came in and had an unbelievable game at Richmond. It led to a breakout year as a sophomore, so you’re giving up something.”
So exactly who is giving up something? Not any of the adults in the room.
Of course, Syracuse isn’t the first to decide when it will serve its sanctions. Miami football announced midseason that it would self-impose a postseason ban in 2011 and '12, amid the Nevin Shapiro scandal.
Ohio State learned the wrong lesson when the Buckeyes elected to play out a 6-7 season under an interim coach that ended in a Gator Bowl loss. The Buckeyes served a bowl ban in 2012, when a 12-0 season ended without a Big Ten title game or a BCS bowl appearance.
This shouldn’t even be an option for schools. That the NCAA allows programs to decide when it serves a punishment is preposterous. The NCAA tacitly encourages such behavior from institutions that broke rules in the first place.
In other words, the NCAA is investigating a program for doing something against the rules and then allows the program to decide when and how it serves its sentence. Syracuse gets to plea bargain and punish its current players for something that happened several years ago.
At least as far as NCAA rules are concerned, these are serious issues. Fab Melo, who was declared ineligible for the 2012 NCAA Tournament, is having his academic record investigated. James Southerland, who missed six games in 2012-13 due to an academic issue, is also believed to be involved.
At one point, Syracuse itself admitted that the NCAA was investigating the program’s adherence to its own drug policies.
And Syracuse’s own investigators looked into an internship program that placed Syracuse athletes at an Oneida, N.Y., YMCA. The investigation centered on a former YMCA employee that had exceptional access to men’s basketball players and had been sued by the YMCA for allegedly misappropriating $338,000 worth of funds.
According to an ESPN source, the issues stretch back for more than a decade, ending in 2013. “Things were going on consistently for a long time,” the source told ESPN.com’s Brett McMurphy.
Boeheim has been there for the entire time, plus for Syracuse’s previous postseason ban in 1993. Should he know everything going in the athletic program? No, but these are issues that span several years and several areas of NCAA interest. Perhaps he should know something.
In the end, Syracuse may end up dodging any major sanctions. The NCAA isn’t known for its track record of consistency. But skipping out on the postseason this year has another effect: Even at 15-7 now, the Orange may end the season approaching a .500 record; They could very well find themselves in a position where one and done in the ACC Tournament and NIT hands Jim Boeheim the first losing season of his career.
Perhaps the notion of two postseason bans in his career, including one has he’s marching toward 1,000 wins, is enough to dent his tremendous legacy of building his alma mater into a national power.
But decades from now, his ledger merely will read 1,000 wins and one or two below-average seasons in the twilight of his career.
Again, how convenient.