Syracuse’s lack of depth has been written about ad nauseum, particularly regarding James Southerland’s absence and how the lack of a deadeye three-point shooter, or at least a three-point threat who must be checked at all times, affects the offense. However, the Orange showed in Monday night’s game that shooting beyond the three-point line, while certainly helpful, is not an absolute necessity to be successful:
The standard defensive strategy by Orange opponents without Southerland in uniform has been pretty basic:
- Crowd the starting guards, especially Brandon Triche, to take away the open perimeter look and force them to drive into a collapsing interior defense.
- Shade off whoever is playing center (Rakeem Christmas or Baye Moussa Keita) and Jerami Grant, as they are limited offensive players.
- Use Trevor Cooney’s defender as a primary help defender when he is on the court. (This is why “starting guards” were specified above.)
These simple rules set up scenarios where the Orange are being defended as if they are playing 3-on-5 or even 2-on-5 when Michael Carter-Williams or Triche gets a few moments of rest.
The result, as Syracuse fans are all-too familiar with, was a pair of terrible offensive performances that led to the recently-deceased two-game losing streak. But, things were different in Monday night’s tilt with Notre Dame without a great perimeter shooting performance. The Orange shot 4-for-15 from deep, including a couple threes from Trevor Cooney, which fits right in with the outside shooting in those two losses (8-for-28 in those contests). That said, the SU offense performed well due to a couple simple adjustments.
Triche and Michael Carter-Williams played the role of distributor as opposed to shooter on their drives into a packed lane. When met by help defenders in the key, the guards opted for easy kick-out passes instead of forcing shots with a high degree of difficulty. Instead of sending those passes out deep to the other guard, who was still being tightly checked by his man, they found C.J Fair and Grant in the 15-to-18 foot range in the space between the wing and the key with the former on the left side and the latter on the right. Both forwards took advantage of these open looks by either taking decisive jump shots before the defender could recover or driving past the recovering defender who was closing out for an attempt near the basket.
Fair, in particular, played a much more assertive role on offense, looking to get either to the rim for a lay-up or into lane to pull out something from his dossier of assorted flips and floaters. It can be puzzling at times to watch Fair exploit defenses with his leaping ability and long arms as he throws down a soaring dunk, then offer his wry, satisfied smile, only to be forced to wonder why he does not look to make assertive drives more frequently. Establishing himself as a bigger threat with the bounce will only lead to more open looks for his mid-range game and the open left corner three-pointer when defenses sag off him to limit his driving.
Similarly, Rakeem Christmas must continue to be assertive on the offensive glass. With his ability to get off the ground quickly for multiple jumps, Christmas needs to establish position, not just on offense, but also to be able to get to the rim for rebounding opportunities. With his ability to get up for rebounds and quick putbacks before defenders can reload for a second jump, a lack of effort is inexcusable. He averages 6.5 points per game on the season, but is capable of getting three lay-ups or dunks off the board any time he puts on the uniform.
These are easy, simple plays that can be made against defenses using the same strategy to slow down the Orange. These defensive schemes will continue to be employed against SU until they show they can continually beat them.
Of course, if the defense plays at the level they did against the Irish, there will not be much need for offensive theatrics. Notre Dame came into Monday’s game averaging 1.15 points per possession, good for eighth in the nation. It works for them, as they tend to play at a slower pace, yet still post strong offensive numbers.
Against the Orange, the Irish slowed things down even more, getting 54 possessions. The Syracuse defense almost choked them out, allowing 47 points for a 0.87 points-per-possession mark. SU averages 0.86 points allowed per possession on the season, but that number is based on about half their season being played against mid-major or worse schools. The great defensive effort Jim Boeheim spoke about after the Notre Dame game is expected, not a fluke.