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Syracuse Basketball Preview: The Orange Can Compete by Shooting Threes

SU has the personnel to do it.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

There's no guarantee that this year's Syracuse team is going to be much better than last year's, which went just 18-13 and 9-9 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. But there does seem to be a guarantee that this one will at least be more exciting -- and probably more frustrating too.

That's because the 2015-16 Orange will take a lot of 3-point shots. Head coach Jim Boeheim told CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein that he expects his team to take between 25 and 30 of them per game. That's not typical for Syracuse, but Boeheim seems to know he'll have to adapt for the Orange to compete in what's sure to be a very competitive ACC.

"You have to look at your team and say, ‘How can we beat somebody?'" he said at SU's annual media day on Oct. 16. "Supposedly these teams are all better than us."

From a pure talent perspective, you could make the case that SU is worse now than it was a year ago. The Orange added three new freshmen -- Franklin Howard, Tyler Lydon and Malachi Richardson -- and a healthy DaJuan Coleman, but lost talented big men Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough to the NBA.

But if there's a reason to feel more optimistic going into this season, it's that this team should have a pretty clear offensive identity. Last year's didn't, other than giving the ball to Christmas and getting out of the way. And the 3 surely wasn't a strength; the Orange shot just 30 percent from beyond the arc, 324th among all Division I teams. They were especially bad in transition, making just 24.4 percent of those 3-pointers.

But by Boeheim's count, Syracuse now has five players who will be legitimate threats from 3. Presumably, those players are Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije, Kaleb Joseph, Lydon and Richardson.

Boeheim seems to be all-in on this plan, to the point where he's expecting to sometimes use Lydon -- a 6-foot-8 forward -- at center. Boeheim doesn't yet know how much he'll go to that lineup, saying it's "to be determined" for now and will be based on the success Syracuse has with it.

At media day, Lydon told me he was originally surprised when the coaches asked him to play center in practice. But he's since bought into the idea and thinks it's something that could work. And, certainly, that lineup would space the floor to extreme degrees, creating plenty of room for SU's shooters to operate. It'd also allow, in theory, all five of them to be on the court together. And even when Syracuse uses more traditional lineups, there should always be at least three or four 3-point threats on the court.

We've seen this approach work before. It's Basketball Analytics 101: making 3s is highly efficient since they're worth 50 percent more than a 2-point shot. And it's especially doable in college, with a closer 3-point arc than the NBA has.

Boeheim mentioned Rick Pitino's 1987 Providence team, which exceeded expectations in-part by taking 19.6 3-pointers per game, per Basketball-Reference. The Friars reached the Final Four, losing to Syracuse.

But there have been more recent examples, too. Just last season, Davidson averaged 27 attempts from deep per game, making just under 40 percent of them. Despite not receiving a single vote in either preseason poll, the Wildcats played well enough to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

In a December loss at Virginia, Davidson hung with the No. 3 team in the country by taking 28 3-pointers and making 11. As Syracuse hopes to, Davidson had five players who played at least 20 minutes per game and shot at least 35 percent from 3.

Iowa State has also proved in recent years that the 3 can be an efficient tool for overcoming other deficiencies. The Cyclones surged to relevancy in 2012-13 by attempting 27 3-pointers per game and making 9.8 of them. They nearly knocked off No. 2 seed Ohio State in the Round of 32 by making 12 of 25 3-pointers. A year later, they averaged 24 3-point attempts per game and reached the Sweet 16.

Whether Syracuse -- which is unranked -- can have similarly surprising success could rely largely on three players: Joseph, Lydon and Richardson. We know what to expect from Cooney and Gbinije, but those three players are all largely wild cards.

With Lydon and Richardson, that's simply because they're freshmen. Boeheim said they're both ahead of the curve for freshmen, but it's impossible to know for sure how good they'll be immediately.

My skepticism with Joseph, meanwhile, comes from the fact that he was a bad 3-point shooter last year. He shot only 20 percent in that department. Boeheim says that Joseph has improved his jump shot greatly, but we'll see.

If Joseph is a reliable option from 3 -- and if Lydon and Richardson are as good as expected -- this could be a special season for Syracuse. Of course, for SU fans, it could also be maddening; when the Orange aren't hitting from deep, it's going to get ugly.

But if they are making those shots, they'll be difficult to beat, even if they're at a talent disadvantage in the ACC.