Plenty for everyone to learn about Syracuse basketball on its Italy trip

Syracuse guard Jalen Carey
Syracuse guard Jalen Carey goes up for a layup. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

About a month from now, the Syracuse men’s basketball team will take off on their longest road trip in many years as they set sail for a series of four games against Italian national teams.

It is a greatly needed trip, as this roster is about as young and inexperienced as you will see in Orange. Elijah Hughes is the only returning starter and Marek Dolezaj returns after two years as a sixth man and sometime starter. The rest of the roster? Well, the program’s Twitter account put out a photo of team members having some Fourth of July frivolity and there were a lot of unfamiliar faces in the pool.

The team gets ten extra practices this summer to get their act together as a result of going on the tour and Jim Boeheim has said every player will play in every game. The head coach also said much of the practice time will also be spent on offense and not as much spent on the nuances of the 2-3 zone defense. Perhaps most notable of all was the coach mentioning the team will play some man-to-man defense on the trip, as well.

The comments about defense make some sense when taking into consideration the inexperience on the roster and Boeheim’s commitment to using everyone on it during the trip. Dolezaj has played close to 1,800 minutes for the Orange and Hughes logged just over 1,100 minutes last season.

After that, Bourama Sidibe is the most experienced player in the 2-3 with 666 minutes and it goes down from there. With the sheer number of guys who have never suited up for a game at SU on the current roster, rushing to get the zone game ready seems like a fool’s errand, particularly since these games don’t officially count.

There is, however, one other bonus for this trip related to the zone. When Boeheim has a group of players on the floor that have experience in the zone (say, his most experienced potential lineup of Sidibe, Dolezaj, Hughes, Buddy Boeheim, and Jalen Carey), the veteran coach will get a look at how his preferred defense handles a new wrinkle – the international 3-point line that is coming to NCAA basketball this coming season, only played by a team used to that feature.

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The line will be moved out from the previous collegiate distance of 20 feet, nine inches to the international 22 feet, 1¾ inches in college basketball. Boeheim has attested that the change will not really affect their defense, as they defend shooters instead of the line.

The coach is correct. One of the easiest ways to see how much Boeheim is concerned about an opponent’s perimeter shooting is to see where the zone’s top line defenders are playing. Are their feet inside the arc? Do they have their heels on the three-point line? Are they a step outside the arc?

It’s a common, easy adjustment for the team, one often deployed coming out of halftime or even a time out. When the guards move outside the line, the baseline wings also come up a couple steps toward the break and the center even slides up a little, closing the open space at the free throw line. This is a strategic trade-off, trying to limit an opponent’s perimeter shooting that comes at a cost of creating open space for them on the baseline.

During Boeheim’s suspension during the 2015-2016 season, Mike Hopkins’ last game leading from the bench was against Clemson. The Tigers were a slightly better than average 3-point shooting team, but normally took a lot of threes, with five different players making at least one triple a game.

Hopkins opted to play up and focus on Clemson’s 3-point shooting. The Tigers took advantage, scoring 40 points in the paint, many coming on back-door plays, including multiple alley-oops. Clemson’s center, Landry Nnoko, tied a career-high with 19 points on the night.

On this summer trip, Boeheim will not only get to experiment with man-to-man, but he’ll also get to see how the longer line affects the defense everywhere when played by teams for whom the longer three-point distance line is second nature.

What happens when he leaves the center in front of the rim as opposed to bringing him up to the free throw line when the guards are above the three-point line? When the baseline wings come up to the break, are they still able to collapse toward the baseline when the offense gets the ball to the free throw line?

There’s a lot to be learned on Syracuse’s trip to Italy and not just by the young kids.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 567 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.