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Inconsistencies will plague Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament

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Two mediocre seasons in a row under head coach Gary Gait left Syracuse with more questions than answers heading into 2024. The Dutch were on the verge of making history. The wrong kind.

SU has never missed the postseason three years in a row. After a disappointing end to 2023, doubts remained. Can a Division III transfer and a freshman reshape a terrible faceoff unit? Would Joey Spallina make another leap as a sophomore? Would a new-look defensive unit lock down?

It all culminated in one question that trumped the rest: Can Syracuse return to its glory days of competing with the best?

On some points the answer was a definitive yes, but also a convincing no. And that’s the problem. The Dutch team still hasn’t given us a concrete answer to the question of whether they are “back”.

Syracuse’s regular season was without a doubt a step in the right direction. For the first time since 2021, the Dutch will participate in the NCAA Tournament, earning the No. 4 overall seed – their highest since 2017, when they were the No. 2 seed. But inconsistencies have marred an overall successful campaign.

Syracuse’s roster is undoubtedly one of the best in the country, but it hasn’t fully gelled yet and the Dutch are running out of time.

To ensure SU returns to its winning ways, Gait added Tufts transfer Mason Kohn and freshman John Mullen to the faceoff unit, Princeton transfer Sam English and Jake Stevens in midfield and former Lehigh forward Christian Mulé. Together they would help bring back the ‘Orange Standard’.

“Coach Gait set that standard. I don’t think that standard has been back for a while,” Spallina said on January 25. “I don’t think there’s necessarily any pressure on us, but we know what we have to do and we’re just taking it one day at a time. time.”

But SU failed in its first two real tests of the season, falling to Maryland and Army in overtime. The Dutch team could not close. A theme synonymous with 2023 seemed to carry over.

Despite initial roadblocks, it quickly became clear that SU’s early season losses wouldn’t determine this. A 13-12 win over then-No. 2 Johns Hopkins – Gait’s first win in the top five – was a step in the right direction.

“It’s definitely the monkey that’s behind a little bit,” Spallina said after the game. “We have come so close over the last two seasons and to finally beat a top five team is huge.”

The win kicked off Syracuse’s five-game winning streak on the season. Eleven days later, SU dismantled then-No. 4 Hertog 10-4. Will Mark’s 13 stops and 77.8% save percentage helped the Orange hold the Blue Devils to their lowest scoring total since 2012.

SU’s offensive depth – led by Spallina, Mulé and Owen Hiltz – has always been its strength. Defense was the biggest concern, but the performance against Duke only showed dominance. It wasn’t just that Syracuse won, but how it won.

Reigning Tewaaraton winner Brennan O’Neill was forced to shoot just 1-for-11 and the rest of the Blue Devils’ top-rated offense was a non-factor. The win raised questions about whether SU was officially “back.”

But ten days later, number 1 Notre Dame easily dispatched the Dutch 16-14. A late flurry cut the once six-goal deficit to two in the third quarter, but it was too late as the reigning champions defeated Syracuse.

Three days later, the misery deepened against then-No. 14 Cornell. The 7-0 and 16-10 leads disappeared in the fourth quarter, as Cornell came out with an 18-17 double overtime victory. The ejection of offensive coordinator Pat March in the first quarter could be used as an excuse, but the late miscues were unacceptable.

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The immaturity from 2023 started to rear its ugly head again and suddenly Syracuse was back to square one. It lost its cool, similar to the 20-12 loss to Notre Dame in 2023, where it conceded nine straight goals in the fourth quarter.

Even in Syracuse’s 10-9 win over North Carolina — where March was suspended — similar issues arose. Syracuse led by six in the third quarter, but struggled against UNC’s pressure during the drive. Without Mark’s late heroics, the Dutch team would not have survived.

When March returned, it was business as usual for the Syracuse offense, scoring 18 against then-No. 4 Virginia in a one-goal win. Still, there was cause for concern as SU trailed by three with less than ten minutes to go.

The game summed up Syracuse’s season. In parts, SU looked unstoppable, while its shortcomings were still ever-present, especially defensively. But during their comeback, the Dutch played free lacrosse.

The problem is that Syracuse hasn’t played a full game since its regular season appearance against Duke. The victory over the Blue Devils propelled the Dutch team to the highest point in recent history. They haven’t been nearly as impressive since. There have been spurts, such as against UVA, but that doesn’t win national championships.

Recent concerns surfaced in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament – ​​a rematch with Duke. Unlike on March 20, the Blue Devils’ offense exploded. Less than five minutes later, Duke had more goals than the regular season meeting (five) before Syracuse touched the ball. Mark let in eight shots in a row and was pulled for Jimmy McCool before the end of the first quarter. The Dutch team did not recover and eventually lost 18-13.

“From the opening whistle, they were ready to prove that they weren’t the same team we played earlier in the season and they really brought that across to us,” Gait said.

Syracuse’s side in the NCAA Tournament is somewhat favorable. An opening round matchup against Towson, followed by a potential quarterfinal matchup against an inconsistent Michigan team or a beatable Denver team, means SU’s path to championship weekend is clear.

But if the latest performance is repeated, Syracuse might as well kiss its tournament hopes goodbye. Unlike the regular season, one bad five-minute period of play can ruin a year’s worth of work. But if there’s one thing to know about SU in 2024, it’s that it’s playing with a chip on its shoulder. Because the Orange was picked fifth in the ACC’s preseason poll with uncertainty looming over the schedule, it was unclear whether the Orange would make the postseason.

Therefore, Syracuse’s season should be considered a success overall. But the performance still begs the question: Will SU make an appearance at the tournament? When push comes to shove, the inconsistencies will likely keep Syracuse from reaching its full potential.

Zak Wolf is sports editor for The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at [email protected] or at X @ZakWolf22.