Is rebounding that important in Syracuse basketball’s 2-3 zone?

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Jan 9, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange forward Marek Dolezaj (21) grabs a rebound during the first half against the Georgetown Hoyas at Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

One of the traditional lines Syracuse fans are told in regards to the 2-3 zone is the importance of rebounding. With defenders not having specific assignments on who to box out, defensive rebounding gets harped on repeatedly, often as opponents pile up offensive rebounds and second chance points.

If you are having trouble remembering some recent examples of having this drilled into your head by a commentator during a recent Orange game, here are a couple notes that may jog your memory regarding the importance placed on rebounding, including on defense:

  • SU’s last two opponents in the NCAA Tournament, West Virginia and Houston, ranked among the top dozen teams in the country at rebounding down their own misses.
  • The Orange went 15-0 this season when outrebounding their opponent and 3-10 when they did not.

Anyway, as a result of employing that 2-3 zone and its accompanying boxout issues, the Orange tend to find themselves among college basketball’s worst teams when it comes to opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage. In fact, here is where the team has ranked in that stat between 347 and 353 Division One teams in their last eight seasons since moving to the ACC:

  • 2013-14: 194th at 31.5 percent
  • 2014-15: 201st at 31.4 percent
  • 2015-16: 337th at 35.0 percent
  • 2016-17: 339th at 34.5 percent
  • 2017-18: 255th at 30.0 percent
  • 2018-19: 341st at 33.3 percent
  • 2019-20: 334th at 32.2 percent
  • 2020-21: 340th at 33.5 percent

As a whole, SU allowed their foes to collect 32.7 percent of all potential offensive rebounds during that time. While they have gotten incrementally better compared to come earlier seasons where they had similarly poor rankings, the game as a whole has shifted to get a little better at defensive rebounding.

One of the other things getting mentioned more frequently in the last couple seasons is that the Orange need to rebound so they can create fast break opportunities. This may be a point stressed by the coaching staff in recent seasons (so it probably also comes up in conversations with commentators prior to games), as the team has not been as good on defense the last couple years as they often are.

Here is how Syracuse has done in fast break points per game in those same seasons:

  • 2013-14: 7.26 fast break pts/game
  • 2014-15: 8.06 fast break pts/game
  • 2015-16: 6.38 fast break pts/game
  • 2016-17: 7.18 fast break pts/game
  • 2017-18: 4.81 fast break pts/game
  • 2018-19: 8.41 fast break pts/game
  • 2019-20: 12.25 fast break pts/game
  • 2020-21: 13.96 fast break pts/game

The average for any of the 267 games in that eight-season span is 8.33 fast break points per game, a number that pretty clearly has been driven up in the last two seasons, as SU has had far and away their most success scoring in transition in that time.

At the same time, it is hard to see a direct line connecting defensive rebounding percentage and fast break points. Syracuse’s best season at defensive rebounding in this span was the 2017-18 campaign, which was also when they generated their least points in transition. Scoring in transition has obviously perked up the last two seasons, while the Orange were terrible at securing defensive rebounds during that time.

The other times when Syracuse gets a chance to score in transition are the other ways possession changes while the ball is still live, namely blocks and steals. The quick change in direction while players, particularly big men, are often caught behind the play opens the door for quick, easy points.

In those same eight seasons, the Orange have averaged 4.82 blocks and 7.81 steals per game. Here is the relationship between fast break points scored in a game along with opponent offensive rebound percentage, blocks, and steals per game during that time:

Fast break points:

  • 0-2 (43 games) – 33.0 percent opponent offensive rebounds, 3.53 blocks, 6.47 steals
  • 3-5 (52 games) – 33.8 percent opponent offensive rebounds, 4.62 blocks, 6.77 steals
  • 6-9 (73 games) – 34.3 percent opponent offensive rebounds, 5.03 blocks, 7.71 steals
  • 10-13 (51 games) – 32.5 percent opponent offensive rebounds, 4.98 blocks, 8.80 steals
  • 14-29 (48 games) – 30.4 percent opponent offensive rebounds, 5.69 blocks, 9.35 steals

The connection between fast break points and blocks and steals is more striking when the two are combined, as they both create that same immediate advantage on offense.

Fast break points:

  • 0-2 (43 games) – 10.00 blocks and steals combined
  • 3-5 (52 games) – 11.39 blocks and steals combined
  • 6-9 (73 games) – 12.74 blocks and steals combined
  • 10-13 (51 games) – 13.78 blocks and steals combined
  • 14-29 (48 games) –15.04 blocks and steals combined

When scoring up to 13 fast break points in a game, the Orange averaged a 33.5 percent opponent offensive rebounding rate with each individual segment coming within a single percentage point. When Syracuse really got out and ran, their improvement on the defensive glass to 30.4 percent helped on a small scale.

However, here’s what that improvement in rebounding rate boils down to: grabbing one more defensive rebound out of the 36 that are up for grabs in the average contest. The average rebounding breakdown of those 267 games? The Orange grab 24.12 defensive rebounds and their opponents snare 11.85 offensive boards.

So, while the Orange were performing at a similar level on the glass in all those games where they scored up to 13 fast break points, the increase in blocks and steals was fueling their work in transition.

If you need a little more convincing that defensive rebounds are not as effective leading to fast break points, here’s a memory exercise for you. Close your eyes and envision this scenario you probably saw a few hundred times this past season without really thinking it was particularly noteworthy (because it’s not noteworthy at all):

An opposing player shoots the ball, maybe from three-point range, maybe not, and misses. A frontline player for SU grabs the rebound and holds the ball, waiting for both the opposing players who crashed the offensive boards to begin their retreat on defense and a guard to come back to the ball for an outlet pass (or handoff) once the coast is clear. Then, the ball is given to that guard and brought up the floor against a defense that is already set.

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This sequence unfolded over and over in Syracuse games. It does not give the Orange a whole lot of chances to score on the break.

Here’s one more set of numbers to illustrate the importance of blocks and steals over defensive rebounding as it pertains to fast break points. It’s Syracuse’s win percentage when the team hits its bottom, middle, and top ends of production in those statistics.

Fast break points:

  • 0-3 fast break points – 26-26 (.500)
  • 4-12 fast break points: 98-62 (.613)
    13+ fast break points – 43-12 (.782)

Opponent offensive rebounding percentage

  • 40% or higher– 19-36 (.345)
  • 24.1-39.9% – 103-55 (.650)
  • 24% or lower – 46-9 (.836)

Blocks and steals

  • 2-10 blocks and steals – 30-27 (.526)
  • 11-14 blocks and steals – 58-49 (.565)
  • 15+ blocks and steals – 79-14 (.849)

As you can see, the team’s best work is when it creates the most blocks and steals. Over these eight seasons, the team went 28-1 when it had at least 18 blocks and steals combined. In their best 29 rebounding performances, the team went 25-4. In fact, those four losses actually came in their 17 best rebounding efforts of those 29 games.

To reach four losses when the Orange had at least 17 blocks and steals, you have to expand to 45 games. That 45-game sample includes two games where they allowed the opponent at least a 40 percent offensive rebounding rate, tying the two stats together.

Here’s a look when you combine the two stats:

Win-loss record when SU had between two and ten blocks and steals combined, split by opponent offensive rebound percentage (average 32.5 percent):

  • 40.0% or higher – 7-12 (.368)
  • 24.1%-39.9% – 22-23 (.489)
  • up to 24.0% – 11-4 (.733)

Win-loss record when SU had between 11 and 14 blocks and steals combined, split by opponent offensive rebound percentage (average 33.7 percent):

  • 40.0% or higher – 12-25 (.324)
  • 24.1%-39.9% – 27-25 (.519)
  • up to 24.0% – 21-3 (.875)

Even combining these two groups does not make much difference until you start getting to the higher end of rebounding success to offset the lower total of blocks and steals. Here is the win-loss record when SU had between two and 14 blocks and steals combined, split by opponent offensive rebound percentage (average 33.2 percent):

  • 40.0% or higher – 19-37 (.339)
  • 24.1%-39.9% – 49-48 (.505)
  • up to 24.0% – 32-7 (.821)

But, here’s Syracuse’s win-loss record when they had 15 or more blocks and steals combined, split by opponent offensive rebound percentage (average 32.2 percent):

  • 40.0% or higher – 7-5 (.583)
  • 24.1%-39.9% – 45-3 (.938)
  • up to 24.0% – 14-2 (.875)

Nine of those ten losses came when SU had between 15 and 17 blocks and steals combined (they had 19 in the remaining loss) with more defeats coming when they got absolutely worked on the glass. Of those ten losses, there are three games where the Orange gave up a below average percentage of offensive boards (30.6 percent or less) while logging lots of steals and blocks. Syracuse had just two fast break points in each game, each coming on a lay-up off a steal.

So, when next season rolls around and you hear about how the Orange need to rebound on defense to win, remember that while pounding the glass helps, piling up steals and blocks will help them get the win faster… because it fuels the break.

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About Jim Stechschulte 687 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.