With an 80-61 defeat of the Tulane Green Wave, Syracuse's non-conference slate has ended better than I think most of we fans expected. I'm sure most, if not all of us, fully expected the Orange to be 13-0 heading into Big East play. After all, despite playing some major conference oppoents, the non-conference schedule wasn't exactly a murderer's row. There were some challenges, but no real scares and not a single contest was really in doubt in the final minutes.
What I don't think most of us expected is for Syracuse to hold the #1 ranking so early in the season, with a chance to hold onto that spot well into Big East play. The target is firmly affixed to Syracuse's back and conference games that are already tough will be even moreso as teams try to add "over #1 Syracuse" to their NCAA tournament resumes.
So, what's the key to victory with added pressure of a #1 ranking? Defense. The top tier of the Big East isn't going to give Syracuse 30+ transition points a game. They're not going to let the Orange shoot 49% from the field every night. Syracuse has to respond with their own defensive effort to grind out the close Big East games that can make the difference between a #1 and #3 NCAA seed.
In the preseason, I composed a similar Fan Post in regards to the merits of Boeheim's 2-3 zone. Though Jim B has shown an uncharacteristic willingness to employ man-to-man and full court pressure so far this season, I think we can count on him consistently falling back onto his signature defense the majority of the time. Much like the preseason article, I'll be looking at the areas in which the zone is percieved to be the weakest, 3pt% defense, creating turnovers and rebounding, and compare them with other Big East teams to see how they stack up.
The knock on any zone defense is that they're too passive, simply waiting for the offense to initiate the action and then reacting. Orange fans all know that the Syracuse 2-3 is anything but passive, but it's usually hard to quantify the flailing arms, baseline traps and jumped passing lanes that are typical of the Syracuse defense. The season's squad has put these things front and center. Much has been made of the fact that Syracuse leads the nation in steals per game (11.15). What isn't noted is that the Orange have accomplished this without a single player being in the top 100 in individual SPG. So, even with the likes of Dion Waiters (2.1 SPG) pickpocketing his way to 6 steals against George Washington, the nation leading team average is all around effort by the Orange. It's raised arms and effective communication. It's getting the best out of what Boeheim recruited these particular players for; length, athleticism and tenacity.
What's more, the 2-3 allows Syracuse to get steals without fouling. The Orange are second only to the Missouri Tigers in steals per foul (.77 to .76). On top of that, Syracuse is also second only in Missouri in steals per turnover (1.03 to 0.99). It's also worth noting that Mizzou plays an uptempo, high pressure style of basketball. While the Syracuse defense is by no means lax, it returns similar results by primarily defensing half court sets, not forcing steals through pressure.
I tend to put blocks and steals together because they most often have the same result; run out opportunities for the Orange. Especially when you consider that most of the blocks Syracuse gets aren't Dwight Howard, "I'm swatting this ball out of bounds just because I can" rejections. The majority stay in play, giving Syracuse the chance to score in transition. Syracuse is 5th in the nation in blocks, averaging 7 per game. Among Big East teams, only UConn averages more. Again, this is a team effort since only one Orange player is in the top 100 in the nation (Fab is T-34 with 2.38 BPG.) By comparion, the teams ahead of Syracuse in BPG all have one shot blocker in the top 25 individually, with C.J. Aiken of St Joe's leading the nation and Anthony Davis of Kentucky ranked third.
It's no secret that Syracuse has a deep stable of shot blockers. Fab Melo and Baye Keita get the recognition because they play the middle of the zone, but James Southerland is also a talented shot blocker as is CJ Fair. What might be surprising is that every player in the regular roation has registered at least one block this season. Kris Joseph has more than twice as many blocks (7) and CJ (3). Micheal Carter-Williams (6) and Rakeem Christmas (8) have more blocks than CJ despite playing roughly half as many minutes on the season. For some perspective, last season CJ was T-3rd on the team with Fab in blocks with 25.
Of course, all of these guys are long, rangy athletes that are likely to be decent shot blockers no matter what defensive scheme they're in. The 2-3, though, puts everyone the floor in a position to register blocks on help defense and to do so without fouling. Syracuse rankes 4th in the nation in blocks per foul (0.47). The two centers, Fab (34) and Keita (25), lead the team in player fouls through the Tulane game, but a player like Southerland has more blocks (14) than total fouls (12). When taken into account with the steals statistics, the Orange have a tool that they can use to make sure every game is winnable and that no game out of reach; the ability to create easy baskets without giving the opponents a chance to score from the free throw line.
The typical opposing fan's pre-game trash talk before any Syracuse game goes something like this, "So-and-So is going to drop 10 threes over Syracuse and be a zone buster." It's true that any zone is designed to defend the interior at the expense of perimeter defense. And it's also true that "So-and-So" had been the bane of the Orange from time to time (see: Hazell, Jeremy). But, overall, the Syracuse 2-3 is historically much better against the three point shot than people give it credit for.
The numbers so far this season show Syracuse to be average against the 3pt shot. Their 31.9% 3pt FG defense doesn't rank in the top 50 nationally (91st). It's only good for 9th in the Big East. But, as per usual, Syracuse is among the leaders in 3pt attempts defensed. Of Big East teams ranking ahead of Syracuse in percentage, only Providence has faced mpre 3pt attempts (and forced one more miss). And only Providence and Villanova have faced more attempts than the Orange among all Big East teams.
While 3pt% defense so far this season hasn't shown up as a strength like it has in the past, it's proven not to be a the liability many of the critics would suggest it is. Especially when you consider that the difference between 9th and 6th in the Big East is a single make. The typical Syracuse game plan is to force opponents to launch contested threes late in the shot clock. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out in conference play if the Orange continue to give up buckets at their current rate.
The last standard gripe against the zone is that it's weak on the boards. Last season, the double-double machine known as Rick Jackson (10.2 RPG) grabbed just about every rebound that came within reach, almost single handedly making Syracuse's board work respectable. This season, with Syracuse's leading rebounder averaging half that (KJ and Fab tied at 5.4 RPG), cleaning the glass is an area of concern for the 2011-12 sqaud.
WIth 479 total rebounds, Syracuse is again in the middle of the Big East at 9th and are even worse (11th) in rebounding margin at +2.8. What's even more concerning is that while the Orange are 4th in the conference in offensive rebounds, they're 15th in defensive rebounds. Second chance points are great. Preventing second chances for opponents is better. And all of this, of course, has been against mostly smaller, less athletic non-conference opponents. Big East teams like Pitt and UConn are going to be much tougher to keep off the glass. It's a weakness that needs to be shored up, even more so that the 3pt% defense.
The strength of the Syracuse defense so far this season is clear, the ability to turn defense into offense. It's encouraging because that is a hallmark of good teams. But good teams can also consistently get stops when they're needed. The 3pt defense and rebounding numbers don't support the Orange's ability to do that. I spent much of the early season worried that Syracuse relied too much on transition chances for their wins. Analysis of the non-conference numbers hasn't allayed those concerns much. If anything, it's reinforced them.
Of course, non-conference numbers posted against mostly overmatched opponents can be misleading. The A+ lineup doesn't get as many minutes at they normally might. Individual players might not get up as much for these games as they do during the Big East season. I understand all that. Much has been made of Syracuse's depth and how they can score with multiple weapons from anywhere on the court. That has me excited. But the defensive numbers show them to be vulnerable, which has me cautious. Defense is what is going to carry Syracuse where they want to go; Big East title, Final Four, National Champion. To paraphrase Jim B., the Orange, "aren't quite there yet." I'll remain cautiously optimistic for now. The potent offense will be able to cover the defensive shortcomings in the early Big East season. But as opponents get tougher and games get tighter, the Syracuse D will have to tighen accordingly.