The Syracuse men’s basketball team has 10 regular season games left. Glimmers of hope like Tuesday’s win over Wake Forest not withstanding, SU has an uphill climb to avoid the worst season of coach Jim Boeheim’s career.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Orange entered the season ranked No. 17/19 in the polls. Former players and coaches alike were buzzing about the team.
In September, Boeheim told Andy Katz on ESPN radio, “We’ve got everything. We’ve got depth. We’ve got shooters. We’ve got size. This is the best team we’ve had in a long time.”
When the former SU stars on Boeheim’s Army stopped by the Melo Center to practice before TBT, they raved. The praise for Tyler Lydon was expected and has been justified, but Eric Devendorf picked out Frank Howard as the team’s most improved player. “He stuck out from the first day we played. I think he’s going to have a good season,” he told the Post Standard.
All the buzz led to some gaudy predictions. The entire Post Standard staff predicted Syracuse would make it at least as far as the Elite 8 with a median prediction of 24 regular season wins. The staff at Nunes Magician was no different, and I was just as guilty myself. I predicted the Orange would finish with as many losses as it ended up suffering in its first 10 games.
How did we get this team so wrong?
To anyone who’s watched the team play, two things stick out: point guard play and defense.
Let’s start with point guard play. Perhaps it was unfair, or at least naïve, to think that the combination of a sophomore converted point guard, who had not played the point at all in high school and played just 11 minutes per game as a freshman while shooting 28.6 percent overall and 10 percent from long distance, and a less-than-6-foot graduate transfer from a non-major conference could lead a team to the Elite 8.
But positive signs were there. Despite his lack of point guard pedigree, Frank Howard averaged 10.3 assists per 100 possessions last season, which was 3.3 more than starter Michael Gbinije. During the time he did see on the court, the offense showed no signs of obviously stalling.
Although John Gillon struggled to shoot in his last season at Colorado State, he made more than 39 percent of his 3’s his first two seasons and consistently got to the foul line. In his first three seasons, he never attempted fewer than 9 free throws per 100 possessions and as a result never posted a true shooting percentage less than 57 percent.
Whether due to off-the-court issues, transitioning to a more structured offense, or some combination of other factors, things never clicked consistently for either point guard this season. Howard lost his starting spot to Gillon, and Gillon has played so inconsistently that Boeheim looks like he’d rather sit them both on the bench if he had another option.
And about those statistics? Despite continuing to put up flashy assist numbers, Howard has struggled to run the offense. His offensive box plus-minus is just 1.2 compared with Gillon’s 3.7. Gillon, on the other hand, has seen his true shooting percentage fall by 6 percent to a career low. The big reason is he is not getting to the line, attempting just 5 free throws per 100 possessions.
Interestingly, from a statistical perspective, Syracuse’s offense is not having a down year overall. SU’s adjusted offensive efficiency, measured by KenPom.com, is the highest since 2014 when the team went 28-6. And this year’s Orange is shooting better, too. Its effective field goal percentage of 53.1 percent is the third highest for Syracuse since 2002.
If there is any issue at all with the offense statistically, it’s rebounding, not point guard play. The Orange’s offensive rebounding percentage of 32.4 percent is not only 1 percent worse than last year, it’s SU’s worst since KenPom started tracking it in 2002.
The reason for this is simple: Tyler Roberson is playing 8 fewer minutes per game than last season, and DaJuan Coleman has barely played at all in conference. They are the only members of this year’s team who are effective on the offensive glass, with offensive rebound rates of 12.8 and 13.5 percent, respectively. Compare that with 7 percent for Lydon, 6 percent for Taurean Thompson, and 3.1 percent for Andrew White III. Roberson has as many put-back baskets (22) as Lydon and Thompson combined.
What about defense, the other glaring hole in this team’s play? This, more than any of the offensive struggles, is the source of the Orange’s woes in 2016-2017.
Syracuse’s adjusted defensive efficiency is 100.7, ranking 104th in the country. This is not just the worst in 16 seasons but the worst by 6.6 points per 100 possessions. It will be the first time since 2009 that Syracuse finishes outside the top 20 in defensive efficiency.
What has been confounding is that the defense has been especially bad in losses. Syracuse gives up a very respectable 88.8 points per 100 possessions in wins but a terrible 114.8 in losses. The chart below compares SU’s points per possession allowed with the opponents’ season-long offensive efficiency. It shows the discrepancy between wins and losses is partially due to losses coming against teams that play good offense.
But the story of the season is in the middle of the chart rather than the sides. The clusters of points in the bottom left and top right show Syracuse’s defense has stymied bad offenses while predictably giving up lots of points against good offenses. But the vertical spread of data points in the middle of the chart shows how inconsistent Syracuse’s defense has been against middle-of-the-road offensive teams.
For example, Syracuse held Monmouth, which scores 1.085 points per possession this year, to just .72 points per possession in a victory. But just one month later Syracuse gave up 1.26 points per possession to St. Johns, which averages a similar 1.09 points per possession on the season.
This inconsistency is why you can look at the season-long statistics and not find any glaring reasons for Syracuse’s ineffectiveness on defense. The team is holding opponents to a similar effective field goal percentage as last year (48 percent vs. 47.3) and forcing turnovers at a similar rate (19.9 percent of possessions vs. 20.4). Rebounding, which is always a problem in the 2-3 zone, is only slightly worse than normal. The team is even blocking a higher percentage of shots than the last two years.
So the question remains: how did we get this team so wrong?
There are numerous theories as to why the team has been so bad. The graduate transfers couldn’t learn the system quickly enough. The point guard play has held back the offense. The team lacks heart and energy.
There are myriad reasons this team is not Final Four caliber, but inconsistency is the difference between complete disaster and a slightly below average season. If Syracuse’s offense performed exactly the same but its defense simply played its median performance each game (this is giving up 1 point per possession, which is not even very good), then it would be 14-7. That improves to 16-5 if the offense put up its median performance against UConn and Georgetown.
Despite his early-season struggles, Paschal Chukwu might well have made the difference on the defensive end in some of these games had he not gotten injured.
Was there any way to see the inconsistency coming? Perhaps. The obvious culprit is the number of players new to the 2-3 zone. The next-worst Boeheim defense in the KenPom era came in 2008, a team that started two freshmen while bringing two more off the bench in addition to a transfer.
This would not bode well for next season when there will be even more roster turnover. But there are plenty of examples in Syracuse history of new players picking up the zone quickly, effectively and consistently.
At the end of the day, there is something else about this team that has caused it to play so unpredictably. It may be as elusive and intangible as team chemistry or confidence.
The good news is that the same X-factors that made this year’s team underachieve are just as likely to make next year’s squad better than expected. There are some things you simply don’t see coming.