Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, assuming a classic Boeheimian pose. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Color me pleased.
When the news broke that Syracuse center and defensive anchor Fabricio Melo was ruled ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, I'm sure my reaction was similar to most Orange fans'. Panic. Despondency. Anger. Fab certainly wasn't the best player on the squad, but a compelling argument could be made that he was the most important. For a team that wins on the strength of its defense, missing the conference defensive player of the year seemed like a crushing blow.
It almost was in the
first second round game against UNC-Asheville. Fab likely wouldn't have stopped J.P. Primm from dropping long threes and certainly wouldn't have helped the Orange shoot better than 5-23 on three point attempts of their own, but an upset of historic proportions was brewing. Luckily, disaster was avoided and the Orange bounced back with an inspiring effort against Kansas State, a team which many though would give Syracuse fits and likely send Boeheim and crew home early. Rakeem Christmas, though, has filled in admirably for Fab and James Southerland has decided to show signs of life the last couple games. As a result, Syracuse once again looks like a team that can make a run to New Orleans and the Final Four.
First things first, though. Syracuse kicks off the Sweet 16 with a 7:15 date against the Wisconsin Badgers on Thursday. Fellow Nunesian Mike I. has already done a fantabulous statistical breakdown of the four remaining teams in the East region. Not a Stat Geek, though, looks more closely at the match up between the Orange and the crew from Madison to see if there's a clear advantage one way or another.
To the casual fan, Wisconsin seems like the epitome of stereotypical Big Ten basketball; big, white, slow, tough defensively, cleans the glass, shoots a lot of 3's. While there's some truth to this assessment of the Badgers, it doesn't tell they whole story. Bo Ryan's teams are known for playing tough defense and making every possession count. They play the slowest pace of any team in the country. But this edition of the Badgers isn't quite as efficient as it needs to be in order to consistently beat the top teams in the country, as evidenced by their 0-3 record against Michigan State this season. Wisconsin plays careful, methodical ball, but not well enough to beat elite teams.
Since the Badgers play at such a slow pace, per game numbers are pretty much useless. Even if the final numbers of the actual game on Thursday meet somewhere in the middle, you can expect them to be far lower than Syracuse's per game averages on the season. This isn't quite the disadvantage it may seem to be, though, as the Orange have shown multiple times this season that they can win close, low scoring games. It would be best for Syracuse if they can speed the game up, but don't expect them to be able to do so. Much like Syracuse, Ryan's team is too disciplined to get away from the game plan so long as the game is still within reach.
To gain a more accurate look at this match up, per possession and percentage numbers were used. Looking at the numbers with this in mind, Syracuse and Wisconsin are fairly evenly matched. None of the tempo neutral metrics provide an outstanding edge to one team or the other. The most surprising thing is that the Badgers are actually less Wisconsin-like than one might think. The perception is that the Badgers play stifling defense and rebound like mad. While this is partially true (their defensive rebound rate is 12% higher than Syracuse's), they fall short of perception in other areas. Wisconsin only holds a .03 advantage in opponent's points per possession and allows a slightly higher opponent's FG% (Wisconsin 38.5, Syracuse 38.3). When it comes to preventing the other team from putting the ball in the basket, both teams are essentially equal.
But what about misses? True, Wisconsin far outperforms Syracuse in defensive rebound percentage, 72.2 to 60.3. The Badgers, though, aren't nearly as good on the offensive glass, only grabbing 30.6% of their own misses while Syracuse gets 36.7% of theirs. It's important to note that, in this case, even percentage numbers are swayed by the fact that Wisconsin plays so few possessions. It's easier for them to get a high percentage of rebounds when fewer shots are attempted by opponents (56.1 against Syracuse, 50.6 against Wisconsin). The same is true for offensive rebounding. It's easier for Syracuse to grab more of their own misses when they take 6.5 more shots. So, statistically, rebounding is also a virtual wash. The key difference is when and were those rebounds come. Defensive rebounding is important, to be sure, but it also doesn't put points on the board, especially since Wisconsin is unlikely to use those defensive rebounds to create easy transition buckets. They don't want to run. When looking at Syracuse's advantage in offensive rebounding percentage, the edge in the overall game could lie there. Offensive rebounds are more likely to lead directly to points. Plus, another thing to consider. Since Wisconsin's offensive rebounding is so poor, Syracuse's defensive rebounding percentage is likely to be higher than normal (and vice versa). Unlike the Badgers, though, the Orange will look to run off of those misses. Syracuse can gain a major edge if it can rebound well on defense and push the break going the other way.
If there's one area that the Orange have a clear advantage, it's the turnover battle. Now, Syracuse does turn the ball over at a slightly higher rate that Wisconsin (16.1 to 15.1). But, Wisconsin's 8.6 steal percentage and +1.9 turnover margin are nowhere close to Syracuse's 14.3 and +5.8. Again, these numbers are more likely to meet somewhere in the middle rather than sway either way toward the extremes, but in this case, the middle is an advantage for the Orange. Wisconsin relies on limiting possessions and playing those possessions as efficiently as possible on both ends. That style of play has very little margin for error. Even a moderate increase in TOs or total possessions played will cause the Badgers to have to get away from what they do best and puts the game in a comfortable place for the Orange. Also, the fact that Syracuse has such an advantage in creating live ball turnovers is significant. Wisconsin may be be able to match the Orange in creating extra possessions, but not in creating possessions that lead to easy baskets. With this likely to be a defensive battle, two or three easy transition buckets could prove the difference. Syracuse is much more adept and creating and converting those baskets.
Not that it's all doom and gloom for the Badgers. If there's an advantage in this game for them, it's from the 3pt line. Wisconsin isn't an outstanding 3pt shooting team, but they perform well enough to make their 21 attempts per game worthwhile. The Badgers shoot 36.2% from range, compared to Syracuse's 34.5%, doing so in more attempts in fewer possessions. So, as should be expected, they make every shot count. On the other side, Wisconsin allows only 28.8% 3pt shooting from opponents while Syracuse allows 30.7% (it should be noted, though, that Syracuse defends 8 more 3pt attempts per game, a number than can't entirely be explained by a difference in pacing). Any Syracuse fan can tell you that the Orange's worst games have come when they fall in love with the 3pt shot. 5-23 won't get it done against the Badgers. 8-20 might. 6-9 is a job well done. The Orange, though, must be prudent with their shot selection and not let what's surely to be a bumping, bruising, grabbing, pulling Badger defense goad them into launching too many deep balls.
The Badgers, though, aren't immune to dying by the three themselves. While they don't shoot all that much higher a percentage, three pointers do compose a significant percentage of their scoring (36.4% to Syracuse's 25.5%). So, when it comes to 3pt shooting, the question becomes whether Wisconsin's advantage in 3pt shooting percentage be able to compensate for the fact that they rely so heavily on the long ball and that Syracuse is adept at taking that away, despite playing a zone. Add in the fact that Syracuse shoots a better percentage from the floor overall, and a 4% advantage in 3pt shooting for the Badgers doesn't mean so much.
So, what does it all mean? This is a good matchup for Syracuse. Their weaknesses don't play all that much into Wisconsin's strengths and the Badgers' shortcomings do play into what the Orange thrive on. The game may be low scoring and ugly, but Bo Ryan's style of play doesn't necessarily hurt Boeheim's game plan. If Syracuse is able to do what it's done all season; limit turnovers, get steals, score in transition and have a balanced attack, they have an excellent chance to advance to the Elite 8 with a shot at a trip to the Big Easy. If they play recklessly, then they'll be back in the Salt City before that can say, "brats and cheddar".