First of all, Syracuse is the best team in the country. Let’s get that out of the way. But they will likely lose before the season is over, and of all the teams the Orange has played, Pitt may have provided the best preview of how it will happen.
When Orange fans looked at the schedule and saw Pitt, many couldn’t help but cringe. Despite the Panther’s 0-5 record in the Big East, Pitt had defeated Syracuse eight of the last nine times they played. Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon knows how to beat the Orange.
In the end, like most of SU’s games in the 2011-2012 season, the outcome was rarely in doubt, and SU cruised to a 71-63 victory. But as the Panthers chipped away at Syracuse’s quick 13-point lead throughout the game, some chinks appeared in SU’s armor.
Pitt outrebounded Syracuse by 12, which is by far the largest rebound deficit the Orange has faced this year. To some degree, this is to be expected. Pitt outrebounded SU by 14 last year and, in fact, in every game the two teams played going back to 2006 when both teams finished with 35 boards.
Since Syracuse lost all of those contests, you might think that outrebounding this year’s Orange is a key to beating them, but rebounding can be misleading. For example, each time the Orange blocks a shot back to its opponent, it counts as a rebound. SU blocked 11 shots against the Panthers.
Out of curiosity, I looked at the correlation between rebound margin and margin of victory for this year’s Orange. There is hardly any correlation at all for the whole season (R=.03) and only slightly more in Big East play (R=-.20). Of more significance to the margin of victory is the offensive rebounding of Syracuse’s opponent (R=.54 in Big East play).
On Saturday, time after time, Pitt’s Dante Taylor and Lamar Patterson came down with Pitt misses. This led to 15 second-chance points for the Panthers, compared with nine for SU. Had Pittsburgh managed to convert their foul shots (12-23), many of which were drawn on offensive rebounds, the game may have been much closer.
The Orange particularly struggled when Fab Melo was out of the game. Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas combined for just 2 rebounds in 17 minutes of action. Keita’s defensive rebound percentage is down to 14.2 percent this year from 17.3 percent last year. As a team, Syracuse’s defensive rebound percentage is 61.9 percent, which is an awful 334th in the nation.
To a certain degree, however, giving up offensive rebounds in the 2-3 zone is inevitable. It often pulls the forwards out of rebounding position and strands the center too far under the basket. Syracuse makes up for this with its shot-blocking (7.8 per game, 3rd best in the nation). The SU big men will swat out shot after shot until it finally ends up in the hands of an Orange jersey.
To beat Syracuse, a team must hit the offensive boards effectively, but even more important is limiting turnovers. The Orange often struggles in the half court but fuels its game-changing runs through defense and fast-break points. This season, an opponent’s number of turnovers correlates much more highly (R=.85) with SU’s margin of victory than offensive rebounds.
Pitt limited itself to 14 turnovers, which is tied for the third fewest an opponent has coughed up to the Orange. Four of those came in the first six minutes of the game, when SU raced out to double-digit lead, which explains why the remainder of the game was such a slog for Syracuse.
Limiting turnovers also helps slow the pace of the game down. Pitt had 62 possessions, which was the third fewest of an SU opponent. Only Virginia Tech and Tulane slowed the pace further. Syracuse finished with just 13 fast-break points, many of which came in the opening minutes of the game.
In the end, pounding the offensive glass, limiting turnovers and slowing the game down weren’t enough for the Panthers. What would a team need to do to beat Syracuse?
Well, an off night shooting for Syracuse wouldn’t hurt. But the Orange has only shot under 40 percent once all season (39 percent against Marquette), and it is 4th in the nation with a 117.6 efficiency rating, meaning Syracuse scores about 1.18 points per possession. With such a deep, balanced team, it is unlikely for all of Syracuse’s options to go cold at once.
To beat Syracuse, a team will need to do what Pitt did – rebound, slow the game down and limit turnovers – but also shoot the lights out while the Orange go colder than normal. Only four teams have managed a 50-plus effective shooting percentage against the SU zone: Virginia Tech, Florida, NC State and Providence (at Providence). Those efforts were not enough, and for another team to triumph where they failed, it will take a truly well rounded performance.
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