In defense of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s use of his bench

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Nov 30, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim reacts to a call against the Indiana Hoosiers during the first half at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

“Use eight, rotate seven, play six, trust five.” Hall of Fame coach and executive Pat Riley gave that quote about doling out playing time in the postseason.

Based on that statement, some Syracuse fans think a different Hall of Fame coach acts like it is the playoffs far too often. Jim Boeheim’s perceived lack of willingness to turn to inexperienced players on the roster is one of the less frequently cited, but still persistent, complaints about him. It usually comes out in two sets of circumstances, either after a loss or during or after an early season game against a lesser opponent during which the starters garnered too many minutes, in the opinion of the complainants.

At the same time, there are reasons for giving starters extended run in competitive games or even in non-competitive early season matchups, such as young starters needing to get experience, the group needing time to gel, and so on.

Boeheim has generally employed a sixth man with regularity over the last 15 years with the player finishing sixth on the team in minutes playing at least 36.0 percent of the possible minutes on the season. This past season was the exception, as Frank Anselem played 33.7 percent of potential minutes, a number bumped up after Jesse Edwards’ season-ending injury.

In seven of those seasons, the sixth man played at least 45 percent of all minutes. Taurean Thompson just missed that cutoff and Chris McCullough would have certainly made it had he not been injured in his lone season on campus.

Seventh man has more variance, but in ten of those 15 seasons, those players played at least 32 percent of all potential minutes. All five of those seasons where the seventh man drew the shorter straw came after the NCAA sanctions led to reduced scholarships. The exceptions during that run of scholarship losses were when Frank Howard got short minutes as a freshman when the team made its surprise run to the Final Four, then Bourama Sidibe had a limited role when Paschal Chukwu was the backbone of the defensive-minded team that went to the 2018 Sweet Sixteen.

Eighth man is where there is the widest variance. The peak number is around 29 percent of available minutes, as Kris Joseph, James Southerland, Baye Moussa Keita, and B.J. Johnson all got that degree of playing time as freshmen or sophomores.

While being the poster child for not getting enough playing time last season, Benny Williams received the highest percentage of playing time for an eighth man in the rotation in the last seven campaigns, playing 23.3 percent of all minutes, a number that would have been higher if not for an injury at the end of the season.

While many fans were dissatisfied with Williams’ playing time, recent history suggests a freshman playing as many minutes as he did leads to good things. Other freshmen who played at least 23 percent of all available minutes as the eighth man in the rotation during the last 15 years are Kris Joseph, Trevor Cooney, and B.J. Johnson. The first two ended up in the top three in minutes each of their remaining three campaigns at SU.

Kaleb Joseph and Howard Washington got the least run for an eighth man, getting under eight percent of all possible minutes in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 seasons, respectively. Both of those squads lacked a lot of breathing room when it came to getting into the tournament, which is probably the strongest correlation between the team’s win-loss record and minute distribution.

Those two teams both got into the NCAA Tournament with little room to spare and both carded the highest rates of minutes going to the top five players. The 2015-2016 team had its top five players spend 84.1 percent of the possible minutes on the floor and the 2017-18 squad nosed them out with the top five getting 84.2 percent of all playing time.

The former team saw its top five players each spend at least 75 percent of the available time on the court. The latter unit was extremely top-heavy, as Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, and Oshae Brissett each played over 94 percent of all available minutes. Battle recorded the highest minute rate of any player in this 15-year window, logging 96.2 percent of all minutes on the season. He sat for a total of ten minutes in the final 31 games of the season, including three minutes in the last 18 contests.

Other teams that had heavy reliance on the top five players on the roster included, in descending order:

  • the 2019-20 team that was on the tournament bubble when the pandemic halted play (80.7 percent)
  • this past season’s team that ended with a losing record (78.8 percent)
  • the 2013-14 squad that started 25-0 and slumped to the end (78.8 percent)
  • the following year’s group that was likely not going to the dance before opting out of the postseason under looming NCAA penalties (78.8 percent)
  • the 2020-21 team that eked into the postseason (78.3 percent)
  • the 2007-08 team that made the NIT (78.0 percent)

» Related: A 2022-23 wish list for Syracuse basketball

All were top-heavy in minutes and five of the six were fringe NCAA Tournament teams. In other words, Boeheim operating with a leading five with little bench help is likely helping his team creep into the tournament instead of sentencing them to a longer offseason.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 2011-2012 team that went 34-3 and was eliminated in the Elite Eight saw only 65.0 percent of all minutes go to the top five. Leading minute man Kris Joseph saw far and away the lowest percentage of possible minutes of any team leader in this 15-year sample, playing only 80.3 percent of the time. The top three leaders in minutes accounted for just under 70 percent of available minutes.

Only one other team saw the top five players on the floor for under 80 percent of potential minutes. The 2009-10 squad saw its top three players earn 79.4 percent of all minutes with only Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins crossing the 80 percent threshold. That team was probably the best assemblage of quality depth as Brandon Triche and Arinze Onuaku each played over half of the available minutes, but finished sixth and seventh on the team.

It definitely seems like quality depth is what pushes a Syracuse team to an upper level. It is something the team is still struggling with even as it is multiple years removed from its most recent NCAA punishment.

Of course, with the transfer portal now looming overhead, it is more difficult than ever to keep quality depth.

Kadary Richmond received the third-highest share of playing time for any player to finish sixth on the team, earning 52.4 percent of possible playing time during his lone season with the Orange. Both he and the player who finished behind him, Robert Braswell (25.8 percent of minutes), hopped into the transfer portal after that season, leaving Syracuse behind. Frank Anselem, who played over one-third of all minutes last year, followed in their footsteps.

You have to go back to the 2013-14 season to find a campaign where the players who ranked sixth, seventh, and eighth in minutes on the roster all returned the following year with only one player (Chris McCullough) opting for the draft. In all, a dozen players who ranked sixth, seventh, or eighth in minutes have left the Syracuse program after the last eight campaigns.

In other words, it is likely to keep being harder than ever for Jim Boeheim to build up quality depth and spread minutes around.

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About Jim Stechschulte 807 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. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. He currently resides in Syracuse. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.