There is something special about this year’s Syracuse men’s basketball team besides its No. 1 ranking and undefeated record. During its impressive start to the season, the Orange has played at the slowest pace of any Syracuse team in the last decade – 61.5 possessions per game, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics.
The Orange’s pace ranks as the 345th slowest in the country. That’s slower than all but six Division 1 teams. So is this a good thing? A bad thing? Did anyone even notice?
The tempo change may be subtle, but fans certainly should have noticed. Since the 2003 National Championship season, Syracuse has averaged 69.4 possessions per game. This year’s squad is 11 percent slower than that average. SU’s pace had been trending downward in recent years to 64.2 possessions per game in 2013, but this year’s squad is even 4 percent slower than that.
The result is a team that appears dominant on defense but limited on offense. But this could not be further from the truth.
In Syracuse’s victory of Wake Forest, announcer Cory Alexander commented on how the Orange give up fewer than 60 points per game, which ranks 9th in the country. He credited this fact to the ACC’s unfamiliarity with the 2-3 zone.
In reality, according to Pomeroy’s tempo-free statistics, SU’s defense is less efficient this year than any of the last four years. SU’s defense is still good – it ranks 18th in defensive efficiency this season – but not as good as years past. This year’s team gives up fewer points not because it is better but because the other team has fewer possessions to score.
On the other hand, ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg recently raved about Syracuse but claimed they “weren’t going to blow anyone out.” SU’s ugly 61-55 win over Notre Dame only added fuel to the contention that Syracuse is limited offensively.
Turning once again to Pomeroy’s tempo-free statistics, however, SU’s offense is actually the 5th most efficient in the country. That is better than any Syracuse team in the past decade, including the National Championship squad.
What Syracuse has this season is an excellent offense paired with a very good but not dominant defense. And as it happens, the team plays incredibly slowly on both sides of the ball. SU forces opponents to take an average of 20.5 seconds per possession – the most in Division 1 – while its offense takes 18.6 seconds per possession – the 257th slowest in the country.
While it’s hard to argue with the results so far, there is minimal evidence the slow pace can be credited with SU’s success. In fact, if you adjust Syracuse’s margins of victory to account for the strength of each opponent, the Orange has actually had wider margins of victory in faster paced games.
But perhaps there is something more to this new style of play for the Orange. The team’s patience on offense is led by point guard Tyler Ennis, whose methodical approach has helped Syracuse minimize turnovers. SU’s offense is taking 2 seconds per possession longer on average this season than last and has only turned the ball over 15.3 percent of the time – the lowest percentage in the last 10 years.
On defense, although the team is not as efficient as in years past, it has rebounded a higher percentage of opponent misses than any Syracuse team in a decade. This has minimized second-chance points, a traditional weakness of the zone.
Most importantly, Syracuse has gained the experience it will need in March. As the season progresses, the average tempo of all games tends to go down. That means games in the Tournament will likely be played at a pace Syracuse is comfortable with.
Finally, the Orange’s slow pace has caused them to play a lot of close games. The team has won those games using one of the nation’s most efficient offenses led by Ennis and CJ Fair. Syracuse can almost always get a basket when it needs one, and as a result, the team should continue winning close games going forward.