Three months and one day ago, St. Francis (N.Y.), a tiny Northeast Conference school from Brooklyn, arrived in Syracuse guaranteed to lose.
The Terriers couldn't play with the Orange. Come on. Not in the Carrier Dome, not anywhere. We actually call these guarantee games for a reason: a well-heeled high-major flies in a boot-strapping patsy for a polite pulverization and an $80,000 check. Bills are paid. Budget goals are met. Schedules are filled. The world keeps on spinning.
Except this game was never a guarantee. The Orange were sluggish and out of rhythm and shot 18-of-51 from the field. St. Francis led for huge portions of the second half. The score was tied at 50-50 with one minute left to play. It wasn't until Jerami Grant and Michael Gbinije made back-to-back steals in the final minute that Syracuse sealed a 56-50 win.
For all its brilliance in 2013-14 -- and you can't get to 25-0 without being brilliant -- this Syracuse team has always had a penchant for making things a little too interesting. On Wednesday, that habit finally caught up with them. And the result, a 62-59 loss to Boston College, bore out what St. Francis proved in a forgettable mid-November guarantee game three months ago. Everybody's luck runs out.
That's what people will say about Syracuse in the coming days: That it was bound to lose eventually. And that's right, to a point: There are only so many times you can bet on red and expect to hit.
In the past week alone, Syracuse barely got past NC State, 56-55, thanks to a late steal and go-ahead bucket in the final moments. Last week, Pittsburgh had a huge home win in hand four seconds before Tyler Ennis made the 35-foot buzzer-beating shot of the season. On Feb. 3, two days after a thrilling 91-89 overtime win against Duke, the Orange needed 33 points (on 9-of-12 from 3) from Trevor Cooney to squeak past Notre Dame 61-55.
There are plenty of other examples: The first Pittsburgh game, on Jan. 18, a 59-54 win very much in doubt until the buzzer sounded. Or Jan. 4's ugly 49-44 win over Miami. Or on Dec. 15, when Syracuse flirted with St. John's at the Garden just a little too long. Much of Syracuse's 25-0 start was built on solid, obvious victories -- on simply being better than the other team. But nearly as often, Jim Boeheim's team has had to figure out a dramatic method in the final moments. Until Wednesday, it always did.
None of which should serve to obscure just how surprising Wednesday night was.
Yeah, sure, Syracuse lets people hang around in its own gym, but Boston College? Six-and-17 Boston College? Before Wednesday, Steve Donahue's team ranked No. 324 in the country in points allowed per possession (adjusted for competition, per kenpom.com). That ranked them among the High Points and Tennessee States and Furmans and Abilene Christians of the world, teams that accept guarantee sums to go on the road and take ritual beatings for the first two months of their season. The Eagles are allowing 1.16 points per possession in conference play. BC opponents shoot 37.9 percent from 3 and 49.7 percent from 2. The Eagles have played more than competently on the offensive end this season, but they've been so, so bad on defense that no one has taken the time to notice. And why would they?
On Wednesday night, the same team described in the previous paragraph held Syracuse to 62 points in 63 possessions. C.J. Fair shot 7-of-22 from the field. Cooney was 1-of-6 from 3-point territory. Syracuse turned BC over on 27 percent of the Eagles' possessions -- 27 percent! -- and Boston College still did enough on both ends of the floor for all 45 minutes to upset the unbeaten No. 1 team in the country. That is incredibly surprising. It would be a mistake to think otherwise.
It would likewise be mistaken to draw too many conclusions from just one game. It doesn't mean Syracuse is "in trouble" in some vague sense, that you should suddenly downgrade them in your early bracket projections. After all, the Orange were 25-0 and ranked No. 1 in the first place precisely because they've been so good in close games. Fair is a minutes-devouring workhorse of a forward, and Ennis has been the most efficient player in the country in close and late situations. If anything, this habit should help Syracuse in the tournament, when these kinds of games against inferior opponents hang whole seasons in the balance.
Nor is it time to assume that Syracuse won't still be a No. 1 seed when the bracket is unveiled on Selection Sunday. There is much to determine before then, not least of which what Wichita State -- the last unbeaten team in basketball -- does with its final handful of regular-season and Missouri Valley tournament games. Top-seed contender Florida needed a miracle to get by Auburn at home on Wednesday night. Arizona is still figuring things out without injured forward Brandon Ashley. And so on.
No, the only real conclusion to draw from Boston College's cathartic win in the Carrier Dome is that you can't live on the proverbial edge forever. You can't assume you'll make a steal in the final moments and win the game every time you play. You can't count on 35-foot shots from your precocious freshman point guard. Luck eventually expires.
Syracuse placed its first bet, and made its first escape, three months and one day ago. Since then, they've been on the hot streak of a lifetime. On Wednesday, the wheel finally spun to black.