This year’s Syracuse basketball team will be best since 2016

Syracuse Georgia Tech Howard Washington
Nov. 29, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Syracuse Orange guard Howard Washington speaks with reporters following a 97-63 win over Georgia Tech at the McCamish Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Dagostino, The Juice Online.

Becoming the best team in one of the worst four-year runs in the program’s recent memory is a low bar, but this year’s team will end the season as the best SU has had since its 2016 Final Four run.

Syracuse’s 5-4 start, the worst in 50 years, is primarily a product of schedule. Oklahoma State, Penn State, and Iowa are not college basketball blue bloods, but they all rank in the KenPom top 40.

Penn State ranks No. 23 after knocking off Maryland, which was No. 4 in the AP poll, while Oklahoma State had gone as high as No. 35 before losing its last two games without injured point guard Isaac Likekele, who torched in the Orange in their matchup.

Losing a few games in the non-Conference schedule, while unthinkable in the early 2010s, has been common for SU the last three years. In fact, many of the Orange’s non-conference losses in prior years have been much worse than this year’s, including Old Dominion last year.

It just happened that Syracuse played three straight games against difficult non-conference opponents, plus Virginia — who Syracuse has struggled against since joining the ACC. If those losses were spread out across a typical SU schedule, it would look no different than recent years.

So what is there to be hopeful about with this year’s team?

Passing

Syracuse’s offense has been downright difficult to watch in recent years. It featured high ball screens that went nowhere, isolation hero ball, and a gruelingly slow pace.

But not only is this team playing at the fastest tempo since 2009, it is passing at a historic level. Syracuse players have assisted on more than 70% of made field goals — 2nd in the nation. Compare that to last year’s 50.5%.

» Related: Boeheim, Hughes set career-highs as Syracuse tops Georgia Tech

Syracuse players are moving the ball more, and no one has been better than Howard Washington. Washington broke out in Saturday’s win against Georgia Tech with eight assists in just 17 minutes, and he could have had three more had SU players knocked down open shots.

Washington is assisting on a ludicrous 59% of SU’s field goals when he’s in the game. That number will not stay that high all season, but it’s clear Washington has earned more playing time going forward.

Defense

Although I would have been the first to think SU’s defense would suffer as SU lost its big, quick guards Tyus Battle and Frank Howard and substituted their minutes for Joe Girard III, who is barely 6’0, and Buddy Boeheim who is much slower than either Battle or Howard.

But SU’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating has actually been better than last year’s — 91.4 vs 95.3 — according to KenPom. Additionally, SU has held opponents to their lowest effective field goal percentage since 2013. That is largely driven by holding teams to just 28.2% from 3 — the lowest percentage in KenPom’s database for an SU team.

While this year’s squad has struggled at times in the paint, the overall defense is shaping up to be a typical efficient Boeheim zone.

A go-to scorer

Elijah Hughes lit up Georgia Tech for 33 points in 34 minutes, but his terrific start to the season isn’t limited to that one game.

Hughes has been better than Tyus Battle on just about every available metric, including a true shooting percentage and assist rate each 10% better, and nearly double the box plus minus and win shares per 40 minutes.

This is not to say that Battle played poorly for the Orange last season; Hughes has simply been playing out of his mind. Hughes is even finishing better at the rim — 82% vs 65%.

Having a scorer like that will help the Orange win close games, and that will allow the team to eventually secure the high quality wins that have thus far eluded them.

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Jeff Irvine
About Jeff Irvine 102 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.