Syracuse and the Paradox of Paradoxes

Ten years ago last Saturday, the role of the underdog in the NCAA tournament changed forever when George Mason, a suburban school from the small Colonial Athletic Association and an 11 seed, stunned top-seeded tournament favorite Connecticut from the Big East to make it to the Final Four.

Up to that point in the modern, 64+ team bracket, only LSU in 1986 — nearly a full generation prior to Mason's upset — had made the final stage of the tournament as a double-digit seed. And a mid-major team getting to that point, so close to the national title, was unthinkable. (CBS Sports' Matt Norlander had an excellent feature at the beginning of March about 2006 George Mason and its unprecedented run.)

Usually, a tournament would have one or two mid-majors make the Sweet 16 before falling at that stage to a power-conference giant with better recruits and much larger resources. Occasionally, a team like Loyola Marymount, Kent State or Gonzaga would get to the Elite Eight, and fall there.

Since that point, after George Mason broke the glass ceiling for mid-majors in the Final Four, Butler, Wichita State, and VCU all followed suit.

Yet, in that same general era, where the best high school players can't go straight to the NBA, and major conferences have consolidated and picked up massive money in TV deals, we've also had several years (2009, 2015, and this year) where the teams playing into the Sweet 16 were all power-conference teams or well-established teams from smaller conferences like Wichita or Gonzaga.

It's a fascinating paradox that doesn't fit cleanly into any real narrative that commentators and analysts have about the state of the sport. In the case of this year's tournament, the lack of mid-majors might have come down to luck, as Northern Iowa and Stephen F. Austin threw away sure wins in the second round. Had both of them won and made the second weekend, we might have looked back on this tournament as every bit as crazy as 2010, 2011 or 2013.

As we're down to the Final Four, it would be easy to lament the second weekend's lack of egalitarianism. I had certainly planned to, when it looked as though the Final Four in such a wild college basketball year would be occupied by two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds, three of whom spent multiple weeks ranked atop the polls, and the other, Virginia, who was arguably the most sound defensive team in the country this year.

But Syracuse threw a massive wrench in all of that with a huge second-half run against the Cavaliers — and in doing so, reinvigorated the tournament. With the win, the Orange became just the fourth double-digit seed to make the Final Four, after LSU, Mason, and VCU.

Let's be clear about something: Syracuse is not a traditional Cinderella team by any stretch of the imagination. This is the school of Pearl Washington, Derrick Coleman, Carmelo Anthony, and Big East Big Mondays on ESPN.

In the regular season, there was little particularly inspiring about the Orange's play, but they also showed that they could beat good teams like Duke, Texas A&M, UConn, and Notre Dame. I thought they belonged in the tournament on Selection Sunday, but many certainly didn't, and I understood those opinions, as well.

For as long as college basketball is played, there will be teams that look like Syracuse did this year on a macro level: .500 in conference, some great wins, bad losses and an overall mediocre profile to the Selection Committee that lands them in one of the final at-large spots on the bracket. Yet, pulling off two big second-half comebacks in the second weekend as a double-digit seed is something that will be remembered for a long time.

Syracuse's unique, unparalleled run to this point to join three season-long national contenders in the Final Four is perfect for this season — a paradox team in a paradox season in something of a paradox era for college basketball.

A decade from now, it's very possible that we regard Syracuse's upset of Virginia as every bit the equal of George Mason's. I doubt it, since you don't quite have the element of David vs. Goliath with two ACC teams in one regional final, but there is an argument to be made.

Before Sunday, Virginia was 68-0 under Tony Bennett with a double-digit halftime lead. The Cavaliers had a 10-point lead with 8 minutes to go. With Virginia's style of play and efficacy on offense and defense, it should be a cakewalk to close out a game like that - and usually is.

Furthermore, Syracuse typically plays a tempo that plays into UVA's hands. After 36 games, Syracuse is ranked 318th in the country in tempo. By comparison, Virginia is basically at rock-bottom in that metric, 350th of 351.

Of course, the defining up-is-down winning adjustment in the biggest up-is-down result of a wild season was that Syracuse went on a massive run after pressing Virginia on defense, speeding the game up to a pace Virginia, who handled pretty much everything great all year, just couldn't cope with.

It certainly helped that freshman Malachi Richardson took over for the Orange, and all-everything Malcolm Brogdon was just 1-14 for Virginia. Michael Gbinije wasn't his usual superlative self, but he was a huge leader for the Orange down the stretch when the frenetic comeback steadied into the final moments.

Now, the Orange will face North Carolina, the country's most talented team, in the Final Four. This bridge appears to be to jagged to cross for Syracuse — but we all said that about the Virginia game, too. In this wild season, the team that's an embodiment of a NCAA tournament that's been somehow been both top-heavy and an underdog's paradise, the Orange may have one or two more surprises up their sleeve.

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