The SU basketball team arrived at the crossroads of the 2019-20 season Tuesday night and turned onto the path that leads not to the program’s fourth NCAA Tournament bid in five seasons, but to its ugly step-sister called the NIT.
The loss to fellow bubble-battler N.C. State may be the one that knocks the Orange out when the selection committee meets next month. Good news is, there is still time to exit the road to oblivion with seven games remaining, but only if Elijah Hughes is healthy.
You need only look at North Carolina to see what can happen to a young team that loses its leader. Without Cole Anthony for two months, the Tarheels went into a tailspin losing nine of 13 games and falling into last place in the ACC standings. Syracuse put up a gritty fight while playing without Hughes for all but three minutes Tuesday, but it’s hard to imagine SU winning at Florida State or Louisville with Hughes glued to the bench. Elijah seemed to try to put the Orange Empire’s minds at ease with what appeared to be an update on twitter Wednesday, saying simply, “nothing major”. But we all know how slowly groin pulls can heal and his status for the immediate future is questionable at best.
Fortunately, no team in college basketball is unbeatable this season, and Georgia Tech proved that again Wednesday night by upsetting ACC-leading Louisville. The Orange also have a feisty freshman named Joe Girard whose confidence has never been higher coming off a 30-point performance. Girard is used to putting a team on his back and seems comfortable doing so. It will be interesting to see if he can carry a team in hostile environments against highly-athletic teams the next two games if Hughes is unable to play. But if there’s anyone who is capable, wouldn’t it be a guy who just matched Pearl, Carmelo, and Lawrence Moten as the only SU freshman ever to score 30?
No matter who plays and who doesn’t, Syracuse has to win at least five of its final seven games to have a chance at making the NCAA’s. That would put the Orange at 19 wins and 12 in the conference heading into the ACC Tournament, where another win or two would place SU squarely back on the bubble. Winning one or both of the next two games against top-10 opponents on their home court would be an even bigger bonus for the resume and make it even tougher to keep the Cuse out of the field. But at least SU is still in control of its own destiny and the intrigue will only thicken as the month wears on.
And the exits are still there for the taking.