With Tyus Battle back in the fold, many people expect Syracuse to perform better on offense than they did last year. It is an easy expectation, as the Orange return every starter from last season’s last two months, including its Sweet Sixteen run.
That offensive improvement should be fairly easy to measure. The Orange finished 317th in the country in points per game, 318th in field goal percentage, and 328th in three-point field goal percentage. Even advanced stats did not paint a pleasant picture of the SU offense, as Ken Pomeroy had them ranking 135th in offensive efficiency.
With Syracuse being such an inexperienced team on the floor last season (Battle and Howard were the only players with more than 450 collegiate minutes entering the year), every player should make a jump forward, both individually and as part of the collective.
Battle should refine his overall game, looking to create for others and polish his three-point shooting, while his backcourt mate, Frank Howard, should continue to work on his ballhandling and developing shot. Marek Dolezaj and Oshae Brissett both need to add strength, with the former improving both his perimeter shooting and aggressiveness and the latter focusing on finishing through contact in the paint. Paschal Chukwu will work on catching the ball in traffic, keeping the ball up, and being more aggressive in the paint.
All these should be part of an improved offensive output. The return to health of Bourama Sidibe and Howard Washington, as well as the additions of redshirt sophomore Elijah Hughes, who has garnered some high praise from Jim Boeheim is recent days, and freshmen Buddy Boeheim, Robert Braswell, and Jalen Carey will provide an increase in offensive options and heightened competition in workouts.
With 11 scholarship players on hand, the team should have plenty of chances to grow in different units, either in practice or just pick-up ball.
There is, however, one big question that will really help determine the offensive output of the Orange next season. What offense will Boeheim use with this assortment of improving players?
Last season, the team relied on Battle, Brissett, and Howard for the bulk of its offensive opportunities. The trio took almost 68 percent of SU’s free throws, over 77 percent of their field goal attempts, and over 93 percent of the team’s three-point shots.
The group leaned on a heavy dose of pick-and-roll and isolation plays, but none were a consistent source of points.
Howard’s pick-and-roll efforts came mostly paired with Chukwu in an effort to bring the opponent’s center away from the rim and clear space in the paint. However, once it was established that Chukwu was not a threat rolling to the rim, opponents had their big men guard well wide of the screen (copying the strategy of elite defensive team Virginia), preventing Howard from getting around the corner and funneling him back toward his original (recovering) defender.
Even when Howard was able to drive out of a pick-and-roll situation, Dolezaj’s defender was often lurking. With Dolezaj’s limited shooting range and lack of aggression when pulling the trigger, Dolezaj’s man often played with a foot in the paint, regardless of what else was happening on the floor, ready to slide over to cut off a penetrating Howard.
With the pick-and-roll mostly stifled, the three perimeter players would work the ball around the perimeter, looking to create a driving lane. Often, no lane would materialize, leaving the one of three players with a handful of seconds on the shot clock to try to create an open look. Contested jumpers and floaters, forced stepbacks and pull-ups, all were acceptable shot attempts for a team desperate for any points it could get.
Milking the clock and grabbing offensive rebounds often were the most important facets of the offense, as they kept the ball away from opponents, slowing the game to a crawl. That grind helped, as the team played at the seventh-slowest pace in the nation, feeding its defense, the fifth-best in the country, as it turned games into rockfights where “first team to 50 points wins” (the team to reach that modest point total first won 31 of SU’s 37 contests).
Great as the defense was, it did not create easy fast break opportunities against high-quality foes. The Orange were a little better than average at blocking shots and a shade above average in steals in ACC play. While there may be slight improvement in those areas this coming season, the players who did that last season are the ones who were unable to turn those opportunities into transition success.
If you think the guys on the roster outside the returning starters will be an instant solution, just remember any move to the bench takes a player from an elite defense off the floor and those returning starters also showed the ability to log heavy minutes. While Boeheim will likely use his bench much more this season than last, when conference play rolls around, that playing rotation is likely to get tightened, not only in number of players, but also in willingness to let untrusted players stay on the floor after defensive errors.
So, the question again is what will they do on offense this season? Motion with quicker ball movement and cutting? More diverse pick-and-roll relying on different players?
I wonder if the guy with 40+ years of experience on the bench has some ideas…