Syracuse basketball’s Achilles’ heel: Perimeter defense, rebounding

All is well with a 9-0 start and the No. 2 ranking in the country for the Syracuse Orange, right? Well, not if you think defense and rebounding is necessary to continue to win games. And as of this moment, the Orange ranks in the bottom half of Division 1 basketball in both categories.

Let’s start with the bad and then get to the worst. Basically, the only way this team can get a defensive stop is with a steal. And thankfully, the Orange is excelling with 10.7 steals per game, good for eighth in the nation. The problems begin when a shot is actually launched.

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Rebounding has been an issue for the Orange

Teams are shooting 43.3% against Syracuse, including 35.9% from the three-point line. To put that into perspective, that puts the Orange 171st out of 351 NCAA Division teams in field-goal shooting against, and 240th in 3-point shooting against. Seems the zone still has a long way to go.

» Related: Trevor Cooney torching nets, Syracuse opponents

Even so, those percentages, combined with Syracuse’s penchant for forcing turnovers, would be less of a concern if over 25% of those missed shots were not resulting in an offensive rebound for the opponent. The Orange has allowed 8.7 offensive rebounds per game, compared to grabbing 20.8 defensive boards, placing it 331st in the entire country. Only twenty teams are worse than Syracuse at defensive rebounding right now.

My instinct would be to say these numbers are skewed because when the Orange plays teams like Cornell and Colgate, the game is generally played at a much slower place, and so many defensive possessions end in a turnover. So let’s just examine the two games the Orange has played against teams in the top 50 of the RPI.

Against Baylor (4th) and Indiana (38th) the Orange was still painfully outrebounded. In face Baylor had as many offensive rebounds, 12, as Syracuse had defensive. Along with shooting 55% from the field including 47% from three, it’s kind of a miracle Baylor lost. Twenty turnovers coupled with ‘Cuse shooting 90% from the free throw line is the difference between being 9-0 and 8-1 right now.
The Indiana game was a different story, with the Orange forcing the Hoosiers into shooting 36.6 percent for the game, but again, the Orange gave up 12 offensive rebounds while only grabbing 18 defensive rebounds of their own.

» Related: Cooney continues dramatic improvement against Binghamton

It’s not just a matter of slow-pacing, it’s an epidemic. No one is rebounding well for Syracuse. With such a long, athletic front-line it’s really inexcusable and befuddling. Boeheim’s squad has been able to win, so far, due to the zone causing turnovers, and the offense being potent and mistake-free. But how long can that last?

What happens when a team comes in that protects the ball well and puts pressure on Ennis and Cooney. Quick, athletic teams like Duke, North Carolina, and Villanova on December 28th. If the Orange struggle offensively, it seems like there’s simply no way they’d win against a quality opponent, unless of course the opponent is struggling too. But without hauling in the misses, that still wouldn’t make a much of a difference.

Right now, Syracuse is winning in spite of a fatal flaw. Unless it’s corrected, it’s only a matter of time before another team takes advantage and sends the Orange to its first defeat.

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Matt Goodman

About Matt Goodman

Matt worked for the Westchester Journal News, covering a variety of sports. He has also covered Syracuse University basketball from 2003-05 in both online and print. Matt graduated from Syracuse University in 2004 and currently resides in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @mattgoodman44.
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