How did Syracuse propel itself into NCAA field?

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Syracuse should still be firmly in the NCAA Tournament despite recent losses

Losses to Louisville and Pittsburgh have put a damper on things for the squad, but Syracuse recently spent three weeks completing a very important task. The Orange won five winnable games in that time span, boosting their NCAA Tournament profile from “on the bubble” to “firmly in the field.”

Obviously, the wins themselves did most of the work in pushing the Orange that far up the NCAA Tournament ladder. Beating teams ranked #21 (Notre Dame) and #65 (Florida State) in RPI did was two little cherries on top.

But, how did they win those five games against lesser quality foes?

First, the Orange tightened up their two-point field goal defense. Part of it was playing lower-quality teams, but SU still allowed their opponents to make only 45 percent of their field goal attempts inside the arc in that five-game span.

In comparison, SU’s first eight ACC foes made 55.9 percent of their two-point shots. In the last two losses to Louisville and Pitt, those two teams shot a combined 41-of-73 on two-point field goals, a 56.2 percent mark.

Rebounding was a big part of it, too. Those five wins ended an 8-1 stretch where the Orange outrebounded seven opponents. The only teams to beat Syracuse on the glass were Virginia, who beat SU, and Georgia Tech, who finished +5 on the glass, but lost a hard-fought three-point game. Louisville and Pitt spent this past week waxing the Orange on the glass as a large part of thumping them.

The offensive end was better for SU, as well, particularly as far as sharing the ball is considered.

» Related: Syracuse legends John Wallace, Lazarus Sims have ‘surreal’ return to Carrier Dome

In the first eight ACC games where the Orange posted a 3-5 mark, the team was credited an assist on 54.6 percent of all field goals. During the “five winnable games” portion of the schedule, the team boosted that mark to 58.1 percent of all field goals.

As a reference point, in the eight non-conference “guarantee” games where a lower-quality team came to the Carrier Dome, Syracuse assisted on 63.1 percent of all field goals.

One of the reasons for the increased assist rate is Malachi Richardson’s continued development as a playmaker. Richardson tallied 36 assists in his first 21 games, a mere 1.7 assists per game. In the five games of note, the freshman handed out 17 assists, good for 3.4 dimes per outing. Even in the two most recent losses, he handed out a total of seven helpers.

What normally comes from assists is the big guys pick up their offensive production. Tyler Lydon was far an away the biggest beneficiary of being set up in good position to score.

Lydon, who looked hesitant early in ACC play, turned up his offense in that five-game span in a significant way. After averaging 5.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per outing early in conference play, the freshman rolled up 13.8 points and 7.6 boards per game in the five wins. Even more impressive was that Lydon boosted his 35.7 percent field goal shooting mark early in ACC games to a 55.8 percent mark, including drilling half his threes.

Tyler Roberson also saw an improvement in his efficiency, as he came into the team’s win streak shooting 51.9 percent from the field but improved his shooting to 60 percent from the floor in the five wins. Roberson was also the beneficiary of being on the business end of pick-and-roll action that the team had used sparingly prior to that time and made those opportunities pay off.

And, as it has been all season, the Orange made perimeter shooting come to the spotlight.

In the first eight ACC games, SU shot 36.5 percent from deep. The five wins saw the team shoot even better, drilling 40.2 percent of their three-point shots. In the losses to Louisville and Pitt, the squad had their worst shooting in over a month, making only 30 percent of their threes across those two losses.

While this week’s two setbacks certainly cost Syracuse, they spotlighted what the team needs to do to be successful. With three games remaining and two of them where the Orange are likely to be favored (NC State at home and a reeling Florida State squad on the road), SU can see where they can right their ship headed into postseason play.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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