Orange squeezed out with another early tournament exit

Sometimes lost amid the fact this program won a title in 2003 and reached the title game in 1996 (a loss to Kentucky) is a cruel reality: Since 1989, Syracuse only advanced past the Sweet 16 in those two years.

This season, SU looked poised and its play predictable enough to seemingly foresee that trend to be snapped.

No such thing in Salt Lake City.

The Orange's season ended Thursday night in such a, well, somewhat quiet way, don't you think? The regional semifinal round kind of sneaked up on us, and before we knew it, Syracuse was out of the field.

This was not a grand March moment. Butler beat Syracuse so ... routinely. I've watched Syracuse play, easily, at least 15 times this season and not once had I ever seen the team look as lethargic as it did in the first half. Butler? It looked like it was ready. Syracuse moved about the maple as if the game was being played 10 minutes after they all crawled out of bed. SU fans know this early-exit feeling all too well, but while Jim Boeheim is certainly an all-time great coach, how much heat should he get for Thursday night's loss?

A refresher on the recent history of Syracuse in the tournament:

2009: knocked out in Sweet 16 by Oklahoma
2006: knocked out in first round by Texas A&M
2005: knocked out in first round by Vermont
2004: knocked out in Sweet 16 by Alabama

There are more years and more early exits, but you get the point. Andy Rautins' college career ended with a 15-point effort, and though he was outscored by teammate Wes Johnson (17), Rautins rallied his team and actually helped get it the lead back, briefly, early in the second half.

We could talk about how Arinze Onuaku's injury played a part in SU losing, but I must emphasize that Butler stole the ball 13 times and the Orange didn't shoot as well from the field, from 3-point range and got beaten on the boards. These are all factors that don't involve Onuaku (or are at least only bolstered by his presence) when he plays.

Boeheim did a great, great job this season. This loss doesn't taint the Coach of the Year awards he has and will still receive. But I do think it's fair we point out how his team seemed so disinterested early on. There was a bit of some lolly-gagging, I feel. If Syracuse comes out with more urgency in that first half, then maybe it goes on that same second-half run and puts some distance between itself and Butler.

But Syracuse fans can/should consider the defense they used all season long to be the silver lining in Thursday's loss. Remember how Orange fans and defenders crowed all season about this team exceeding expectations? It wasn't expected to be a player in the Big East. But it turned a tempered preseason outlook into a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament and lost against a squad that finally broke the seal on its Elite Eight lid.

It's not the worst loss Syracuse fans have suffered. Not by any stretch. As I'm sure many SU fans will gladly point out, though, that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt just as much right now.

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