If you only knew that the Syracuse men’s basketball team was 6-1 and ranked 30th in the KenPom rankings, you might think the team was poised to bounce back into a regular fixture in the top-25 for the first time in years.
But the Orange is one missed open shot by the Bryant Bulldogs and an incredible Alan Griffin block away from being 3-3 with two home losses to sub-100 teams. Something needs to change if the Orange are finally going to breathe easy again on Selection Sunday.
The obvious change is inserting freshman point guard Kadary Richmond into the starting lineup. Statistics aren’t everything, but Richmond is so far and away SU’s best defender that his defensive box plus/minus of 7.7 is more than twice that of the next best Orange. He has the team’s highest steal percentage and block percentage. He leads Syracuse in defensive win shares despite ranking 5th in minutes played.
Giving Joe Girard’s minutes to Richmond is so painfully obvious, that even the stubborn Hall of Famer Boeheim appears to have seen the light. The other lineup adjustment that coach Boeheim should try is less obvious, but it is the only way this SU team will reach its ceiling.
Syracuse should move Buddy Boeheim to the sixth man role and rotate Griffin into the primary shooting guard slot alongside Richmond at point guard.
This would put Syracuse’s best two guard defenders at the top of the zone and give SU the combination of length and quickness that has been the hallmark of Boeheim’s best defensive teams.
Moving Griffin to the top of the zone allows Marek Dolezaj to shift to his natural forward position, freeing a spot in the middle for one of Syracuse’s true centers. This adds both size and rim protection to the back line.
Boeheim might protest about Syracuse’s options at center. But I would argue you’re doing recruiting wrong if you have three players (Frank Anselem, Jesse Edwards, and John Bol Ajak) who are 6-10 or taller, two of whom have more than a year’s experience in the program, and none of them are playable in a big game.
Regardless of Syracuse’s current three true center options, the rotation of Griffin to shooting guard solves the problem of who will sit when Bourama Sidibe returns from injury. It should be Boeheim.
Boeheim will likely be one of the Orange’s all-time leading 3-point shooters—why sit him? Putting his cold-shooting (26% from 3) start to the season aside, Boeheim has never been efficient. Last season, his 53% true shooting percentage was worse than all regular Syracuse players except Joe Girard, who would also be on the bench with this new hypothetical starting lineup. This season, taking the highest percentage of the team’s shots, Boeheim’s true shooting percentage has dipped to 45%.
Even if Boeheim can improve his 3-point shooting back to last season’s level, his defense will always be a liability. Boeheim-plus-Girard may be the worst top-of-the-zone defensive combination that Syracuse has ever had. Last year, the backcourt duo led SU to its second-worst ranking in KenPom’s adjusted defensive statistic in the history of the database (second only to 2017—a year when John Gillon’s lack of size at the top proved as problematic as Girard’s but the defense was hampered more by slow wings and the lack of an interior shotblocker after Paschal Chukwu’s season-ending injury).
Boeheim will still get minutes, but as a sixth man he can play a role better suited for his skills. He can spark runs with his 3-point shooting and, as needed, create buckets using his new(ish) back-down-and-fade move.
Reducing his minutes will improve the defense while increasing the shot volume of SU’s more efficient players. Richmond (59%), Griffin (59%), Dolezaj (61%), and Quincy Guerrier (71%) are all much more efficient than Boeheim (45%) by true shooting percentage. This is not like last year when Syracuse had few reliable scoring options beyond Boeheim and Elijah Hughes.
At shooting guard, Griffin can space the floor as well as Boeheim. Counting his Illinois career, on more than 200 attempts he has shot 3% better than Boeheim on 3-pointers.
Alongside Griffin, Richmond is ready to go at point guard. He sparked a 16-point second-half comeback against Buffalo on Saturday, logging 32 minutes, including the final 14 of regulation and all five in overtime. He got to the hoop at will, facilitated the offense dishing out five assists, and slowed the Bulls’ offense, which scored at will with Girard and Boeheim at the top.
Coach Boeheim may have come around; just don’t ask him about it. In the press conference after the game, he told reporters, “We’ve got 3 guards and we’re going to use all three, got it? You guys want to coach, go get a high school team somewhere and coach.”
Given that attitude—and the fact that Buddy Boeheim is his son—don’t expect a Richmond-Griffin backcourt anytime soon. But it’s a shame because the chance would unlock potential that Syracuse has lacked for a long time.