At halftime of Syracuse’s victory over High Point, the No. 2 Orange led 3-6 Panthers (ranked No. 258 in the KenPom rankings) by a mere three points. High Point had shot 6-12 from the beyond the arc, and immediately Tweets started pouring in claiming that if the Panthers could keep up this shooting then they would have a chance to pull off the upset.
This type of halftime analysis/panic has become typical in Syracuse games that are close at the half because the conventional wisdom says that a team needs to shoot the lights out from deep to beat the 2-3 zone. But the analysis is severely misleading and the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Sure, if a team makes more than half of its 3-pointers, it’s got a decent shot at beating the Orange. But how often has this happened? Only four times in the 196 games the Orange has played in the last five-plus seasons. That’s about 2 percent of the time – less than once a season.
Syracuse finished 1-3 in those four games, but overall there is barely a relationship between how well SU’s opponent shoots from 3 and the final score margin. The chart below plots this relationship from 2008-2009 season through this year, and you can see from the regression line that opponent’s 3-point percentage only explains about 12 percent of the variation in final score margin. Of note, SU is 19-14 in games where its opponent shoots better than 40 percent from behind the arc and 16-4 when its opponent makes 10 or more 3s.
Returning to Friday night’s High Point game, we can now see that there was hardly any chance the Panthers would continue their hot shooting in the second half. Year after year, Jim Boeheim assembles a zone with the length and quickness to effectively challenge outside shots. And yet, SU’s opponents continue to bomb away. No team has attempted 10 or fewer 3s against the Orange in the last five-plus years, something SU has done 13 times in that span.
So is the fact that the Orange lets its opponents shoot 34.3 percent from behind the arc (6 points worse than last season) a big deal? Not really. According to the regression line above, it will lower SU’s average scoring margin victory by 2.5 points. Looking at SU’s record the last five seasons, this change in opponent 3-point percentage would only result in Syracuse winning 4 percent less often than last year’s team.
But even though this year’s Orange is giving up the worst 3-point percentage since the NIT-bound 2007-2008 squad, this team is better at many other areas than Syracuse teams of the past 5 seasons.
Led by Tyler Ennis’s eye-popping 4.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, the Orange has only turned the ball over on 15.3 percent of possessions this season. That’s better than any Syracuse team in the last five seasons. With the exception of a sloppy performance in the season opener against Cornell, the Orange has turned the ball over on less than 20 percent of possessions in every game this season. Over the last 5 seasons, SU has won 87 percent of the time it has limited turnover to this level compared with 76 percent when it does not.
On the other side of the ball, Syracuse has forced turnovers on 25.9 percent of its opponents’ possessions this season. That is better than last year’s team (23.5 percent), and better than any of the great Orange defenses of the last five seasons.
This year’s Orange has also rebounded 68.4 percent of opponent misses while corralling 40.5 percent of potential offensive rebounds. Once again, these are high marks from the last five seasons.
Syracuse has not yet entered the conference schedule, so these statistics may fall as SU plays tougher opponents. But this year’s Orange has proven better at rebounding (a traditional weakness of the zone) and more careful with the ball than any team in recent memory. This will help the Orange overcome its deficiencies, such as defending the 3, and ultimately make this year’s squad the best since the 2003 National Championship team.
So if 3-point shooting is not the route to defeating the Orange, what is? Opponents will need to limit Syracuse’s strengths. This means outrebounding Syracuse and forcing the team into turnovers. Syracuse’s next opponent, Villanova, has done both of these things well and will be the Orange’s toughest test yet.
But as long as Ennis stays out of foul trouble on the court, it will be difficult to force Syracuse mistakes. And with the Orange’s large and deep frontline, outrebounding SU will be a formidable task for any opponent, regardless of the zone’s rebounding limitations.