You don’t have to be a Hall of Fame coach to see that Syracuse’s defense has been a problem this season. The Orange are giving up 77.8 points per game, allowing their foes to make 42.5 percent of their field goals and 33.4 percent of their threes.
It has been three seasons since SU had a defense that lived up to the 2-3 zone’s reputation, finishing 30th in defensive efficiency in the 2018-2019 season. This season’s small sample is returning worse results than either of the last two versions, but it seems like the team has stumbled on an adjustment in recent games that suggests a turnaround is possible.
But, why are there problems and why are they so severe this season?
Over the last eight seasons, Syracuse has frequently found themselves facing among the most three-pointers shot be their opponents in Division One. It makes sense, as their 2-3 zone encourages foes to fling the ball at the rim from long distance, ideally a contested effort, a shot taken a step behind the line, a check at the rim in the final seconds of the shot clock, or some combination of the three.
In fact, twice in the last three years, SU’s opponents have shot nearly half of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. Here are the rates of three-pointers as a percentage of all field goal attempts by Orange opponents and where they stand nationally:
- 2013-2014: .405, 11th
- 2014-2015: .374, 79th
- 2015-2016: .397, 43rd
- 2016-2017: .428, 24th
- 2017-2018: .445, 15th
- 2018-2019: .481, 5th
- 2019-2020: .479, 3rd
- 2020-2021: .442, 17th
- 2021-2022: .516, 1st
This season, in part due to the athletic limitations of the Orange guards and wings, the opposition has leaned even more into shooting threes, often getting wide open looks through quick ball movement because defenders simply cannot keep up with sharp passes.
While Jim Boeheim has gotten improved results out of tweaking the 2-3 zone defense to play more like a 1-3-1 defense in the last three games, the defense is struggling to put together a complete game.
In ten of 18 halves of basketball this season, SU has permitted opponents to shoot at least 35 percent from three. When allowing opponents to shoot 35 percent or better from three in the last eight-plus seasons, Syracuse is 53-53 overall, including a 3-3 mark this season. Colgate and Auburn, who have authored the two biggest margins of victory against the Orange, are the teams that have shot at least 35 percent from long range in both halves of a game.
The good news is that the switch to playing more like a 1-3-1 zone has led to improved results in the last two games. Florida State and Villanova combined to shoot 17-of-80 (21.3 percent) from long range over the last couple games and the Wildcats’ second half was the only one where either team hit at least 18 percent from long range. So, maybe, maybe, the Orange are onto something.
Of course, another problem with the defense, regardless of its alignment, is that it is not forcing turnovers. SU stands 280th in the nation in turnover rate, forcing more than 11 turnovers in just three of their nine games to this point. In the last couple seasons where Syracuse was not as good on defense as they have traditionally been, they stood 130th and 160th in turnover rate.
An odd note is that, despite that lower turnover rate, the team is getting a similar number of steals as in their recent history, owed to playing at a faster pace. In the last two years, Syracuse averaged 7.73 steals per game. This season, they have 8.22 steals per game, a number propped up by getting 18 against Indiana and 15 against Drexel, the latter one tying the previous high of the last eight seasons, making the former easily the highest total of that time. Those outliers are probably some statistical noise of this season’s small sample size.
While the defense is coming up with a normal number of steals, the Orange are facing a shortage of blocked shots per game this season. Led by Jesse Edwards, SU is averaging 3.78 blocked shots per game this season, well behind the 4.78 blocks per game they averaged over the last eight seasons.
When you combine those blocks and steals, Syracuse is averaging 12 opportunities with a sudden change of possession where they can take advantage of the opponent by scoring fast break points, just under the 12.58 they averaged in the last eight campaigns. And, overall, the team’s 10.33 fast break points per game is above the 8.27 points per game they averaged in those eight seasons.
However, SU averaged 13.05 fast break points per game in the last two seasons when their defense was leaky, illustrating a need to get quick and easy points. Not only is that 10.33 fast break points per contest below that pace, the last six games matching the step up to major conference competition are even more concerning.
Just like the Indiana game is propping up SU’s steal numbers, the 24 fast break points they put on the Hoosiers are more than they have scored in the other five games against higher-end foes. In the last six games, SU has 42 fast break points. Set aside the two dozen scored on Indiana, and the average plummets to 3.60 fast break points per game, a lower number than even the slowest-playing SU teams of recent years. Instead of going slow to keep games lower scoring, this time around, the lack of fast break points to the lack of athleticism on the team, just like the three-point defense.
The physical issues plaguing Syracuse are not going to go aware. It’s going to take a lot more on the intellectual side of the coin to figure out how to offset them.