The Syracuse Orange have not been playing great basketball. You probably all know this. Your liver probably knows this best of all. So while all the talking heads can talk about Syracuse being a five seed, we here at TNIAAM are smarter than that. We're going to identify what's wrong with the Orange and see if it's fixable.
First off, the process that I'm going to use is two fold: First we're going to use Dean Oliver's four factors of Basketball Success to compare Syracuse's game struggles of late with success earlier in the year. Then, we're going to look at if there is any one singular fix for particular struggles and play coach. Sound solid? Let's start by looking at the Orange's play since Pittsburgh. (Note: I started this before the G-Tech fiasco. I added those numbers into my individual player eFG% but not the graph below.)
To put into context just how much of a struggle this stretch has been for the Orange, their season offensive rating (points/100 possessions) is 112.5, good for 45th best in the country. A big reason there has been such a sharp drop is the eFG% drop by the team in their losses. While shooting has improved since the NC State fluke win, it hasn't been great. As Matt pointed out earlier this week, the Orange's recent reliance on the jump shot hasn't helped too much. The bottom line is that even with a shaky all around performance, if the Orange could actually make a few more shots, this would a discussion about cleaning up sloppy play on defense and not a slightly panicked piece on the Orange's recent skid.
How to fix: Well the easy answer is to make more shots. But specifically, Tyler Ennis, Trevor Cooney and C.J. Fair need to start hitting their mark. I went through and decided to look at the entire roster's eFG% during the skid and compare to their conference and season marks. Baye and Gbinije don't really have a lot of shots to analyze while Christmas and Grant see their percentages slightly increase but shot totals decrease. We all know Grant is injured and Rak has played differently without the security blanket of Grant and Baye. The skid's numbers are bolded, conference and season are respectively followed italicized.
It's obvious Ennis and Fair have struggled since being asked to shoulder more of a load. A lot of CJ's struggles come from behind the arc, where he's made just 26% of his shots and only 2 (!!) during this skid. Cooney's numbers are even worse. He's made just nine threes (as we all recall the Notre Dame game did in fact happen) in this skid and hasn't been taking many shots inside the arc.
How to fix: Some could look at this skid as just a small sample size/regression to the mean but we all know better. We've watched the team play and the slow methodical offense that was effective early this year is now sluggish and sloppy. Obviously a mental wake up call is one answer as well as find a Mario star for Grant, but I think another way to break this skid is better management of players. Cooney needs to get into a rhythm and has the ability to drive to the hoop so make that an early game priority. If Grant is healthy, the bigs will have a rotation once again and the Orange can afford to be more aggressive around the rim, setting the Cooney game plan up nicely. Ennis and Fair will see their percentages improve as other players get more touches.
And it's not just the offense that has struggled of late, the defense has been less than stellar. The Orange's defensive rating (think of as points/100 possessions) on the season is 97.2, good for 44th best in the country. In the three losses, the Orange's average defensive rating was 111.9. Even more disturbing is opponent eFG%. In the three losses, the Orange's average opponent eFG% is 0.555 or 55.5%.
How to Fix: I'm not as worried about defense seeing that the last few years we've seen the more rested Orange defense revive in postseason tournaments. However, the Orange does need to better account for teams figuring out the 2-3 zone's weaknesses, namely finding and shooting in the soft spots and not closing out on outside shooters. We've seen Georgia Tech, Boston College and NC State especially get to the center of the zone far too easily and hit uncontested shots. Even though that's how you beat the zone, the defense needs to at least make getting to those locations more difficult (how many times has a player blown past Baye uncontested) and close out with their length (Rak standing and watching a shot instead of getting his arms up) to at least make things more difficult.
In conclusion, I don't think the Orange are broken. While the stats show they're not an elite team, their body of work before the skid showed a top 8 team in the country with the potential to slow down any high scoring team and defensively frustrate them into a competitive game. However, the current trends show a team far too reliant on lazy shooting that can be fixed and should at least put the Orange into the second weekend of the tournament.