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Syracuse Basketball Preview: Trevor Cooney's Last Season Provides Best Opportunity Yet

Trevor Cooney has had a career full of peaks and valleys, but this season has a chance to be his greatest peak yet.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

As Trevor Cooney enters his final season at Syracuse, his legacy is one that's still difficult to define. Through three seasons, he's experienced it all: a Final Four run in 2013; the 25-0 start to the 2013-14 season followed by a 3-6 finish; and the 2015 postseason ban SU self-imposed on a team that wouldn't have made the NCAA Tournament anyway.

Similarly, he's experienced his own individual peaks and valleys. He's always been a plus-defender -- something that seems to get overlooked -- but he's struggled with his shot. Despite constantly being labeled a shooter, Cooney has made just 28.3 percent of his 3s during conference play, which includes a season in the Big East in 2012-13. He has never shot better than 30.9 percent from 3 during conference play in a single season.

This season, though, the pieces are in place for Cooney to have his most efficient campaign yet. Now it's simply a matter of making the most of that opportunity.


When Syracuse coaches reviewed their accountability charts at the end of the 2013-14 season, they found that Cooney was the team's best defender, assistant coach Mike Hopkins said.

It didn't come as much of a surprise; Cooney has always played good defense in the 2-3 zone. But it's something that doesn't always get recognized about the fifth-year senior, who was fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 1.8 steals per game in 2014-15.

"I'm not looked at to be a good defender," he said. "But someone who plays man-to-man and has the same amount of steals is looked at to be a good defender."

And maybe if Syracuse did play man-to-man, Cooney wouldn't be a great defender. But he thrives in SU's system. According to Shot Analytics, Syracuse's opponents last season shot just 27 percent from the right wing 3-point area -- an area that Cooney was primarily responsible for defending in the zone. When compared to average shooting percentages, it was opposing teams' worst spot on the floor.

Hopkins credits Cooney's defensive prowess to his knowledge of the 2-3 zone, which Hopkins added is the biggest key to success in the zone.

"There's no question about it," Hopkins said. "People think it's an athletic, long zone and it is, but it's also an IQ zone. ... There are a lot of reads, there are a lot of rotations. Like with any good team defense, you're seeing things and you're communicating. ... So it's a hard, intricate defense."

And at least in part because of Cooney, that defense has ranked eighth, 13th and 20th in the country over the past three seasons in's adjusted defensive efficiency rating. Individually, Cooney has accounted for 4.5 defensive win shares during that span, according to Basketball-Reference.

But Cooney could be the best defender in college basketball, and much of the focus would likely still be on his 3-point shooting. And that's where he hasn't always been so great.


During the second half of a loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 21 last season, Cooney had to retreat to the locker room because of back pain. It was the first time the injury forced him to exit a game, but he says it was something that plagued him for weeks. The injury was so severe that Cooney could hardly put on a shirt or tie his shoes toward the end of the season.

It topped off what was mostly a forgettable season for Cooney. On a team that won just 18 games, he never quite got into an offensive rhythm himself. He shot just 27.6 percent from 3 in ACC play.

That was at least partially a result of the players around him. Because Syracuse didn't have any perimeter threats outside of Cooney and Michael Gbinije, opposing defenses were able to focus much of their attention on Cooney with the intentions of forcing players like B.J. Johnson, Kaleb Joseph and Ron Patterson to beat them. Those three players shot a combined 21.6 percent from 3 on the season.

"(Cooney) really had to take some shots that were not quality shots, but he had to take them and I wanted him to take them because he had the best chance (of making them)," Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said at last month's ACC Media Day. "His percentage on the bad shots was better than some of the other guys who were shooting about 17 percent."

Boeheim isn't wrong about that; even when he was taking low quality shots, Cooney was a better option than Johnson, Joseph and Patterson. But Cooney's shot selection was still worth questioning.

Often times last season, Cooney would attempt highly-contested shots early in the shot clock, something that isn't smart to do regardless of the other players on the court. According to Hoop-Math, Cooney attempted 57 3s in the first 10 seconds of possessions, making just 14 of them -- or just 24.6 percent.

When Cooney and the rest of the offense was more patient, it often resulted in better looks for the Delaware native. He went 11-for-20 on 3s attempted in the last five seconds of the shot clock, per Hoop-Math.

With the shot clock being reduced from 35 to 30 seconds this season, Syracuse will have less time to operate. But it's nonetheless clear that Cooney needs to get better at not forcing shots early in possessions.

It's also worth noting the significant amount of minutes Cooney played last season. According to, he played 92.5 percent of all the minutes Syracuse played. That was the 13th-highest mark in the country and second-highest in the ACC.

It's impossible to know the direct effects playing those minutes had, but Cooney seemed to wear down at the end of the season. Over roughly the final month, he shot just 19.2 percent from 3.

Cooney isn't the only player who plays a ton of minutes, but he is one who is constantly running off screens and moving all over the place on offense. Possessions like this one aren't uncommon for him:

That's not easy to do for 40 minutes per game, and it's fair to think all of that mileage might have added up by the end of the season. And while some might point to Cooney's back injury as reason for his dip in efficiency, it's possible the injury was itself a result of him playing so much.

Cooney, however, refused to attribute any of his shortcomings last season to the minutes he played.

"You want to play those minutes," he said. "You train hard to play those minutes."

Boeheim has a similar mindset. At Syracuse's media day, he said that it is "not an issue" for players to play between 38 and 40 minutes on a consistent basis. In any scenario, though, this season should be less taxing on Cooney, as he'll have a considerable amount of help on the perimeter.


In two exhibitions this month, six different Syracuse players -- Cooney, Gbinije, Joseph and freshmen Franklin Howard, Tyler Lydon and Malachi Richardson -- made at least two 3-pointers. That's something that should be a common theme throughout the season; by Boeheim's estimation, all six players are capable of being good 3-point shooters.

Not only will that give Boeheim the option of resting Cooney from time to time, but, unlike last season, defenses will also need to account for three or four perimeter threats at all times. Boeheim expects the Orange to shoot between 25 and 30 3s per game; in the two exhibitions, SU shot 61 of them.

That approach will create more floor spacing than any team Cooney has been a part of, which should free him up for more quality shots. And, in turn, that should boost his 3-point shooting percentage to a more respectable mark.

If that doesn't happen, he'll still be worth having on the floor for the majority of games. His defense is all too valuable for him to be sitting on the bench for long stretches.

But it's no secret that Cooney will ultimately be judged, at least by fans, by how many of his shots are falling. And if there were ever a time for him to improve in that department, it would be this season.