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Syracuse players in huddle before game
Photo by Al Tielemans /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

There is no shortage of options if you search for the best men’s NCAA basketball teams to never win a National Championship. The teams on these lists might differ some, but the main ones appear every time. Larry Johnson’s 1991 UNLV team, Patrick Ewing’s 1985 Georgetown team and even the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats are on the first ballot for this lesser Hall of Fame.

There is one squad from a historically successful basketball school that is nowhere to be seen though, and it’s time that changed.

This team won 34 games and made it to the Elite Eight. This team had six players who would go on to play in the NBA. The coach had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame six years earlier. They were ranked No. 1 for six straight weeks (12/12/11 to 1/22/12) and finished No. 2 in the AP Poll.

That’s right. The best college basketball team no one talks about is the 2011-12 Syracuse Orange.

How Jim Boeheim’s 2011-12 Orange Became Unstoppable

Syracuse players in huddle before game
Photo by Al Tielemans /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Now the immediate response is likely that the history books show this team technically never won a game. That’s because Syracuse and head coach Jim Boeheim were punished for infractions from 2004-2015. The NCAA would state, “Over the course of a decade, Syracuse University did not control and monitor its athletics programs, and its head men’s basketball coach failed to monitor his program.?

This is not ideal. And the rules are the rules for a reason. However, none of the transgressions affected any player’s ability to perform on the court. That might be viewed as a convenient excuse to continue discussing this team’s standing in basketball history. But we’re already here so we might as well move forward with the exercise.

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The 2011-12 Orange won their first 20 games. They also won these games by an average of 20 points. This team was a behemoth. Led by Seniors Kris Joseph (Forward and a Wooden Award Finalist) and Scoop Jardine (Guard). The starting lineup also included Center Fab Melo, Forward Rakeem Christmas and Guard Brandon Triche

The bench included 2011-12 Big East 6th Man of the Year Dion Waiters, 2013-14 Wooden Award Finalist CJ Fair, future NBA players Michael Carter-Williams and James Southerland, and Sophomore Center Baye Moussa Keita.

Here’s how this group fared in the NBA Draft:

  • Dion Waiters: No. 4 pick in 2012
  • Fab Melo: No. 22 pick in 2012
  • Kris Joseph: No. 51 pick in 2012
  • Michael Carter-Williams: No. 11 pick in 2013
  • Rakeem Christmas: No. 36 pick in 2015

The 20-0 team looked unstoppable, but an off-court situation would derail them briefly. Fab Melo would be suspended for three games for academic reasons. He would miss Big East conference games vs. Notre Dame/Cincinnati/West Virginia. The hopes for an undefeated regular season would end in a 67-58 loss to Notre Dame, but the Orange were able to win the other two games.

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When Melo returned, Syracuse promptly won another 10 straight games to finish 30-0 with Melo and 1-2 without him. The Orange were upset in the Semi-finals of the Big East Tournament but still were locked into the No. 1 seed in the East bracket of the NCAA Tournament. 

Then the other shoe dropped ahead of March Madness tip-off.

The NCAA 2012 Tournament Was Not Kind to Syracuse

C.J. Fair #5 of the Syracuse Orange goes up to dunk the ball
Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Melo would be suspended again, this time for the entire NCAA Tournament. Suddenly the Orange’s odds to win the school’s second National Championship fell dramatically. It looked like this team wouldn’t even make it out of the East Region without getting embarrassed. Things almost reached a nightmare level when Syracuse trailed 16-seed UNC Asheville 34-30 at halftime of their first round matchup. Luckily for fans in Upstate New York, the Orange righted the ship to win 72-65. In their second round game, Syracuse rolled past Kansas State to a 75-59 win.

In the Sweet Sixteen, the Orange would survive another squeaker by beating Wisconsin 64-63. The Elite Eight matchup vs. Ohio State would not be as kind to Syracuse. Ohio State had finished the year ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll. The Buckeyes were a top 10 team all year, even being the preseason No. 3 team and then the 2nd-ranked team in the country from 11/28 to 12/25.

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Ohio State was led by forward Jared Sullinger, who was another Wooden Award finalist (like the Orange’s Joseph). Sullinger had averaged a 18/9 in the Buckeyes’ first three Tournament games. He was the leading scorer in the Elite Eight matchup vs. Syracuse with 19 points. He also added seven rebounds to his team’s total of 37, which was 15 more than the Orange’s 22 boards.

And that was the Achilles heel that ended Syracuse’s season. Without Melo, who was the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year, manning the center part of Boeheim’s legendary 2-3 zone, the Buckeyes dominated the paint and the glass. Ohio State won this matchup 77-70, advancing to the Final Four.

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The 2011-12 Syracuse Orange Had It All, But Couldn’t Win It All

C.J. Fair, Fab Melo, Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine before game
Photo by Porter Binks /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

It’s not easy to blame the ending of what could have been a legendary season on one player’s absence. However, it’s nearly impossible not to imagine “what If?” for this team if the Melo suspension had not happened. Now you could also argue it would have been worse for ‘Cuse fans/Boeheim’s legacy if this team had won the title, and then had to vacate it.

If you are evaluating the 2011-12 Syracuse Orange strictly by their on-court performance though, they were a team to remember. And considering they were borderline unbeatable when they were at full-strength, they are definitely one of the best teams to not win the National Championship. 

MORE: The Worst College Basketball Team of 2022 is the Definition of “True Grit”

Terry is from Massachusetts and is a passionate fan of the Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox and Bruins. He also will admit he only pays attention to Syracuse basketball when they're good. If there's a Twitter trade rumor even remotely associated with one of his teams, he's likely fallen for it. Finally, he believes 100% that if the Celtics had beaten the Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals they would have swept the Thunder in the Finals.
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