On the surface, this Syracuse men’s basketball team is nothing special. There are no five-star recruits. In fact, the team’s highest-rated recruit in recent years, Jalen Carey, plays for Rhode Island. So no, this team is not loaded with talented freshman or stocked with savvy upperclassmen on awards shortlists.
Yet, the Orange is 6-1 with its lone loss coming against 11th-ranked Rutgers on the road. SU ranks 13th in BPI and 45th in strength of record. While likely not an elite team, this is a quality basketball squad capable of reaching the NCAA tournament, and, potentially, ending Syracuse’s annual “bubble watch” saga. Obviously, some of that will depend on what this year’s tournament looks like with COVID-19 concerns still very much in play.
On paper, this starting lineup leaves a lot to be desired. It features a trigger-happy volume shooter in Joe Girard, a grad-transfer who didn’t start on his previous team in Alan Griffin, a three-but-no-D guard in Buddy Boeheim, a shooting guard playing power forward in Quincy Guerrier, and an undersized, scrappy center in Marek Dolezaj. Two freshman who had no real offseason to get acclimated to college hoops are the main rotation players. But that collection of misfits, castoffs and inexperienced rookies is 6-1 and playing some solid basketball.
How does this really make sense? The simple answer is that these players make each other better. Seven games in, Jim Boeheim has already done an excellent job coaching this team up. It is clear there is a bit more chemistry and a team-first focus on this year’s squad. Considering how often SU relied on the singular playmaking ability of Elijah Hughes or Tyus Battle in recent years, it is a nice change of pace.
It starts with the offense. The Orange ranks 19th in the nation in assist rate so far. 64 percent of Syracuse’s shots this season have been assisted. Compare that to 2019-20 when only 55 percent of SU’s shots came off assists. That placed them 99th nationally. A major factor in the team’s improved early-season play is ball movement.
Additionally, likely because of the increased ball movement, Syracuse plays much faster. It averages an extra seven possessions per 40 minutes of play so far, jumping from 68.3 to 75.4. That might not sound like much, but it is the difference from ranking 233rd in 2019-20 to 46th in 2020-21.
Another big piece of the early-season success has been an increased effort to limit second-chance points. SU is cleaning up the boards this year defensively. So far, their opponents are earning a second possession off a miss 26.1 percent of the time. That is not a great number, nor even a very good one. It’s pretty much middle of the road, nationally.
But this has been a major issue for the Orange for several years now. It is just difficult to box out consistently in the zone. For instance, last season, Syracuse finished 334th in the country in opponent’s offensive rebound percentage with a mark of 32.2 percent. Climbing to average is a major win for Syracuse in this department.
One last area where the Orange seem markedly improved from a year ago is opponent’s turnover rate. SU has seen its mark jump up from 17.3 percent in 2019-20 to 20.4 in 2020-21. It plays right into this team’s tendency to get out an run in transition. Forcing turnovers more frequently is never a bad thing, but is especially telling the zone. It means there is a lot communication and some really solid execution at the defensive end.
Now, I understand this is an incredibly small sample size. Teams do not win championships in December. However, it is a positive start and indicative of how the team has so far. It is clear when you watch Syracuse play there are no egos and that these players are willing to make the extra effort to do what is best for the team.
There have still been bumps in the road. Narrowly beating Bryant and heading to overtime with Buffalo proves there is still a lot of room for improvement. But there are plenty of reasons for hope and optimism.
Is this team destined to win a national championship? Probably not, but I suppose never say never after the year we just had. The point is that if you take this team apart, the individual talent will not impress you. It’s when you put it all together, that you see that this group has the potential to be the best team Boeheim has had on the floor together since 2016.
It is not about the individuals in Central New York this season. Team-first basketball has returned to Syracuse.