Syracuse basketball’s defense has been better than advertised

Roberson is in his final season at Syracuse
Roberson has been part of an underrated Syracuse defense

After playing 4 games in 10 days, Syracuse has a much-deserved break. The Orange is preparing for a tough nine-day stretch, which may determine whether its postseason includes the NCAA Tournament. But Syracuse’s defense has been an unsung reason the Orange have surged toward March.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Syracuse ranks 30th in the country by giving up just 95.1 points per 100 possessions. That is great or most college basketball programs and for Syracuse it is a perfectly acceptable overall outcome. But as a college basketball blue blood, it hides deeper success at all levels of SU’s defense.

Syracuse ranks 53rd in the country in defensive field goal percentage, and 54th in turnover percentage. Moreover, the Orange provides the 16th best 3-point defense while blocking 13 percent of shots (ranked 35th nationally) and stealing 12.3 percent of possessions (8th nationally).

Syracuse is better than average in every defensive statistic except offensive rebounding percentage. That’s to be expected in the zone, and SU is actually rebounding as well on the offensive end (34.7 percent) as they are giving up on the defensive end (34.8 percent). Tyler Roberson is the major reason that those numbers are close. He rebounds 15.5 percent of offensive misses, which is more than twice that of Tyler Lydon and 3.1 percent more than DaJaun Coleman in limited time.

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Many SU fans have criticized Trevor Cooney because he is shooting just 34.8 percent, his worst field goal percentage since his freshman year. But Cooney has been a big reason for the Orange’s defensive success. Cooney has forced steels on 2.2 percent of possessions and is second in the ACC in steals per game at 1.7. His teammate Michael Gbinije leads the conference with 2.3 steals per game.

This is the reason that Cooney continues to be 12th in the country in minutes played per game at 37.2 (Gbinije is 34rd at 38 per game). Although his effective field goal percentage is his lowest since his freshman year, he provides value to SU’s defense that cannot be replaced with Frank Howard or Kaleb Joseph.

Although Syracuse’s defense is good on relative standards, it is still not good on historical standards. The Orange’s adjusted defensive rating of 95.1, according to, is still the worst since 2009. Although the team has the 3rd best 3-point defense of the last 12 years, its effective field goal defense is actually slightly worse than last year (46.5 percent versus 46.4 percent). Syracuse sorely misses Rakeem Christmas in the middle of the zone.

As Syracuse enters its most crucial stretch of the season, defense will play a key role. The starting guards Gbinije and Cooney will be at the forefront. Two of the final seven games will come against Florida State, which is ranked 36th overall in the KenPom rankings, compared with No. 38 for Syracuse.

SU will need to win one of these two games to lock up a birth in the NCAA tournament. Fortunately, the Seminoles are just 191th in the country with a 34.1 3-point percentage.. The combination of Gbinije and Cooney will likely push the percentage even lower.

But Syracuse will face a challenge on the rebounding side as Florida State corrals 32.6 percent of offensive misses (84th in the country). Roberson’s rebounding will be make-or-break for the Orange, but these games will likely be close regardless. As the Seminoles play a slow pace at just 73.4 possessions per game, each possession will be vital. Syracuse has what it needs at the top of the zone, but these games will be decided down low where Lydon and Coleman continue to try to hold their own.

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About Jeff Irvine 107 Articles
Jeff has covered Massachusetts Minutemen basketball for The Maroon and White and The Daily Hampshire Gazette. He has also written for The Daily Orange. Jeff is an Amherst, Massachusetts native, and graduated from Syracuse University in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyirvine.