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Syracuse’s 40-Year NBA Finals Drought Is About to End

Jimmy Carter was in office the last time a member of the Orange competed for an NBA title. Their misery is about to end, but they aren’t the only college basketball blue blood that’s struggled to produce players who compete for championships.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

File it under the “2020 in a nutshell” memes. Finally, absurdly, for the first time in 40 years, a former Syracuse basketball player will reach the NBA Finals—a four-decade drought for a school with a record 49 straight winning seasons. Both Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant and Los Angeles Lakers guard Dion Waiters are ’Cuse alum, so it doesn’t matter who advances out of the Western Conference. There’s orange on both sides. History will be made.

The last Syracuse grad to reach the Finals was Marty Byrnes, a left-handed forward drafted in 1978 who averaged less than six points per game over his four-year NBA career and never spent more than one season with the same team. (He even briefly dipped out of the league in 1981-82 to play in the Continental Basketball Association for the Rochester Zeniths. They just don’t make mascots like that anymore.) Byrnes was a member of the 1980 Lakers championship team, but mostly in spirit. Coach Paul Westhead didn’t play Byrnes in the Finals until Game 6, when the former Syracuse captain logged exactly one glorious minute. He didn’t attempt a single shot. Didn’t grab a rebound. Didn’t even foul. After his short-lived debut (which would also be his last appearance) in the NBA Finals, Byrnes exited the game with zero statistical significance. But to his credit, we’re still talking about that cameo 40 years later. Kareem, Magic, and Marty. Lakers legends.

Syracuse hasn’t historically produced the flashiest of players, but a 40-year Finals drought is still surprising for such a well-regarded basketball program. Over the last 15 seasons, 28 former Orangemen have played in the NBA, including five lottery picks—Waiters, Wesley Johnson, Jonny “not quite Steph Curry” Flynn, Carmelo Anthony, and first overall pick Derrick Coleman. Looking at that list, it’s a little too easy to make fun of Syracuse for its lack of an NBA legacy. The school finally won its first NCAA title in 2003, and Jim Boeheim never evolved into a pioneer of the one-and-done revolution like the Cals and Ks did. He’s known more for the droopy suits, the collector’s item zone defense, reminiscing about the Big East. Boeheim is a treasured heirloom, but his degree of “old school” is a basketball period piece. You don’t want to one-and-done somewhere unless the program exudes a wild and fast cadence. That’s not exactly what comes to mind when you think “Syracuse.”

In the absence of a 2020 March Madness, college basketball fans can turn to the NBA to measure their school’s success through a different prism. With this as my creed, I decided to look at which prestigious programs (for the sake of this exercise, every school that’s made a Final Four since 2004) have churned out players with the least luck in reaching the NBA Finals, a project my editor deemed a “kamikaze mission” and my friend called a “bizarre” and “seemingly trivial” way to spend my time. But a life not spent mocking opposing fan bases is a life not worth living. (As a Louisville fan, this is restorative justice for the 2013 banner wrongfully being taken away.) So with the start of the one-and-done era in mind, I looked at recently drafted players from the most successful schools over the last 15 seasons and tallied how many reached the Finals and won a chip. (Those who came before and were floating around in the league post-2004 will not show up on this chart, nor will their winnings.) Here are my findings:

NBA Success by College’s Top Programs Since 2004

School Final Fours Players Drafted Finals Appearances Titles Won Players Remaining in 2020 Playoffs
School Final Fours Players Drafted Finals Appearances Titles Won Players Remaining in 2020 Playoffs
Kentucky 4 (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) 40 4 2 5
Duke 3 (2004, 2010, 2015) 34 6 1 4
Kansas 3 (2008, 2012, 2018) 25 8 4 1
North Carolina 5 (2005, 2008, 2009, 2016, 2017 ) 24 5 3 1
UCLA 3 (2006, 2007, 2008) 24 13 6 0
Syracuse 2 (2013, 2016) 17 0 0 2
Connecticut 4 (2004, 2009, 2011, 2014) 14 0 0 1
Florida 3 (2006, 2007, 2014) 14 5 4 1
Michigan 2 (2013, 2018) 13 0 0 1
Louisville 3 (2005, 2012, 2013) 12 0 0 0

The Orange have come close-ish.

Obviously, by the premise of this story, the collegiate program whose former players have experienced the least team-based playoff success in the NBA is from upstate New York. I tracked only the last 15 NBA seasons, but this school’s misfortune-by-proxy extends decades. Aside from Byrnes, only two former ’Cuse players have ever made the Finals: Dennis DuVal in 1975 for the Washington Bullets and Bill Gabor, affectionately called “The Human Projectile,” in 1954 for the Syracuse Nationals.

Several recent players have come close to snapping the skid. Malachi Richardson—who was a one-and-done under Boeheim—began the 2018-19 season in Toronto. The Raptors would eventually shock the league by winning their first title, but not before trading Richardson to the Sixers in February. Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets were a 35-point Kobe Bryant performance away from forcing a Game 7 in their Western Conference finals series in 2009. Neither luck nor skill has been on Syracuse’s side, until this season.

UConn fell way, way, way off.

Right behind Syracuse is Connecticut, saved entirely by the grace of Ray Allen’s jump shot. His four Finals appearances and two titles are more than all of the other 14 Huskies drafter after 2004 can claim combined. Those men, including current playoff guard Kemba Walker, have no titles or Finals showings to any of their names.

UCLA and Kansas reign supreme.

In the last 15 seasons, former Bruins and Jayhawks are tied for the most titles from any school with eight. A great chunk of their prosperity is thanks to their players being on the Cavaliers or Warriors when those franchises monopolized the Finals. Apart from UCLA’s Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, it’s a list of role players—Mario Chalmers, Jordan Farmar, and Trevor Ariza. It’s an ironic win for Bill Self’s program, since (1) Self himself has a reputation for struggling in the postseason, and (2) Kansas might be banned from its next postseason.

Kentucky is exactly what you’d expect, depending on what you expect.

The land of the fleeing freshman. It’s difficult to say whether Coach Calipari’s one-and-done recruiting strategy gives UK a better or worse chance of former Wildcats reaching the Finals. On the one hand, he holds up his end of the deal perfectly—bestowing national attention upon über-talented teenagers—which lands many of his players high on draft boards. On the other, they’re so young and inexperienced when they enter the league that it should, in theory, take them more time to lead a franchise to the Finals.

There’s no shortage of Kentucky players in the NBA. Since 2004, 40 players have been drafted out of UK. Yet of those players, just three have reached the Finals, and only two, Rajon Rondo and Jodie Meeks, have won a title. The Kentucky players who were drafted before 2004, two years before the one-and-done rule was instituted, are a different story. Four players from that era won rings, all in consecutive years: Tayshaun Prince with the 2004 Pistons, Nazr Mohammed with the 2005 Spurs, and Antoine Walker and Derek Anderson with the 2006 Heat.

Kentucky can get back on track in this Finals. Either Denver’s Jamal Murray or L.A.’s Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo will advance out of the West, and Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are two major reasons the Heat are up 3-1 against the Celtics.

One Carolina school is more efficient than the other.

Because Quinn Cook went undrafted, he doesn’t show up on the original chart. But his one title with the Warriors in 2018 matches the output of his fellow young Duke products over the last 15 seasons. The other winner—of the batch of 34 drafted players since 2004—was Kyrie Irving in 2016. Well-earned. Meanwhile, qualified UNC players have reached eight Finals and won three rings (five, if you include undrafted James McAdoo’s two titles in Golden State), with a group of not particularly “superstar” alumni like Danny Green and Harrison Barnes leading the way.

And then there’s Louisville.

It didn’t occur to me, a University of Louisville graduate, that this piece could possibly result in me dunking on myself. Then I realized that Louisville has the fourth-most players drafted since 2004 (12) with no Finals appearances. Hoist by my own petard.