After losing their first game of the year to Notre Dame ten days ago and a couple of close calls against Cincinnati and West Virginia, the talk surrounding the Orange has been the lack of half court scoring. The absence of Fab in the middle has robbed Syracuse of much of its fast break ability as well as its best offensive big man. As a result, Boeheim's squad has been forced to grind out plodding half court wins, which it is hardly suited for. This team is built for speed. It's built to run and to never look back. With Fab's status still up in the air, though, they're going to have to find other ways to score.
Not a Stat Geek has already covered defensive rebounding as a weakness of this season's Orange squad and many of the comments pointed to free throw shooting as well. With run out opportunities lacking of late, free throw shooting is key to manufacturing points in the half court. The concerns, though, weren't of the normal FT% variety, though. Syracuse is shooting .697, the highest team FT% since the 2006-2007 season, when they shot .695 (the 2003 title team shot .694). There are no Arinze Onuakus (.394 career FT%) or Jeremy McNeils (.491 career FT%) on this team. No, Nunesians are more concerned with Syracuse's free throw rate.
For those unfamiliar with the term, KenPom defines free throw rate as Free Throws Attempted/Field Goals Attempted. The idea is that free throws carry a different sort of value than field goals. For one, most players shoot better from the foul line than from the field (unless they're Baye Keita, who shoots essentially the same from both). And two, shooting free throws early means it's likely that more will follow later, almost guaranteeing easy scoring chances late in the game. So, how exactly does Syracuse's free throw rate compare to the other top teams?
This week: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It.
The common complaint against Syracuse's half court offense is that they settle for two many jump shots. For as much talk as there it about the Syracuse defense forcing opponents into long jumpers late in the shot clock, the Orange offense often does the same. Part of it is the offensive scheme. Syracuse runs most of it's action off of high screen and roll action. Part of it is the players. No one on the roster is a go-to scorer in the post. With the likes of Scoop, Triche, KJ and Dion, though, who can seemingly get into the lane at will, certainly there must be better opportunities available than to hoist long jumpers.
Free throw rate is a good way to gauge how well a team attacks the paint because play in the lane is more likely to result in free throws. It's a cardinal sin of defense, after all, to foul a jump shooter. Syracuse ranks 258th in free throw rate at 31.7. That rate is by far the worst among the AP top 5, the closest being Ohio State at 37.5. It's interesting to note that while Syracuse has consistently been below all the others in free throw rate, the Orange have maintained a relatively steady rate throughout the season. So, while Ohio State, for example, was winning blowouts partially on the strength of .650 free throw rate during the first two weeks of the season, Syracuse was doing the same with their paltry .300.
While Syracuse has consistently been below all of the other teams currently ranked in the top five, it's hard to argue that the disparity has hurt them. In the Orange's sole loss to Notre Dame, their free throw rate was slightly above average. It seems unlikely that this one factor was the sole cause of Syracuse's demise when it failed to tag the Orange with a loss in the previous twenty tries. It's much more likely that Boeheim's squad was simply the victim of the unfortunately combination of a poor shooting night (34%) and superb shooting from the Irish (50%).
So, what does it all mean? For one, free throw percentage doesn't really matter. While getting to the free throw line certainly has its own unique merit and value, only in extreme circumstances will it be the difference in a game. When taken into account with all other shooting statistics (FG%, Effective FG%, Points in the Paint, Fast Break Points, Second Chance Points, etc.), free throw rate isn't a significant enough value to greatly sway overall performance. You could argue that it might make a big difference in a close game against a good opponent, but a 32.8 free throw rate didn't keep Syracuse from beating Florida by 4 (though, admittedly the Gators had an even more miserable 19.3 FT rate). The Orange are a good enough team on both ends that a lack of free throw attempts is unlikely to decide the outcome of a game. So long as the Orange are able to capitalize on the infrequent chances they do have, free throw rate is almost rendered moot.
Second, there are a lot of ways to win games. Syracuse does it by turning steals and blocked shots into transition offense. Kentucky and UNC also do it with shot blocking, with the addition of strong offensive rebounding. Ohio State, on the other hand, wins games in part by keeping opponents off the glass. There is no singular best way to win games. Each team has to play to its strengths. What matters is, come Tournament time, the team that can best force its style of game on the opponent is the most likely to win. True, Syracuse doesn't get to the free thow line as much as they could. They've been consistently able to win games despite that, though, and consistency is what matters when it's time to win or go home. The Orange could fall victim to hot shooting, like they did against Notre Dame, but that can happen to any team. It happened to UNC when the Tarheels got blown out by Florida State. For better or worse, Syracuse's style of play doesn't produce many trips to the free throw line. It's a style, though, that has led to 22 wins in 23 games, a #2 ranking and a projected #1 overall NCAA Tournament seeding.
As the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."