Trailing 35-29 at halftime Tuesday night, Syracuse looked destined to follow in the footsteps of Georgetown, Virginia and Wisconsin with a loss to a mid-major it had no business losing to. The central aspect of SU's offensive problems was on the offensive end, where the Orange struggled to penetrate St. Bonaventure's defense and get open looks.
That changed, though, after the intermission. By making a change at point guard and emphasizing drives into the lane, Syracuse exploded for 50 second half points. That was more than enough, as SU managed a 79-66 win over the Bonnies in the Carrier Dome.
In the first half, Syracuse, which used predominantly small lineups featuring Tyler Lydon at center, tried to beat St. Bonaventure with pick-and-roll sets. But the Bonnies, who had a quick, small lineup of their own, didn't have much trouble stopping that approach. Of the six St. Bonaventure players who saw the most action, none were taller than 6-foot-7. When the Bonnies switched on Syracuse's pick-and-rolls, it didn't create any mismatches for the Orange and eliminated the possibility for 4-on-3 situations.
In the clip below, Lydon sets a high ball screen for Kaleb Joseph. Lydon's defender, Dion Wright, switches onto Joseph before Gbinije sets a second screen. The Bonnies then switch again, as Nelson Kaputo gets in front of Joseph. Joseph tries to dribble past him to the basket, but Kaputo seals him off in the paint, forcing Joseph into a turnover.
Presumably because of plays like that one, Syracuse ran fewer pick-and-roll sets and went away from using its two natural point guards in the second half; after logging a combined 13 minutes at point guard in the first, neither Joseph nor Franklin Howard saw the floor in the second half. In their place, Michael Gbinije was the primary ball handler for the entirety of the half, while Malachi Richardson also served as a playmaker in halfcourt sets.
Instead of running pick-and-rolls, Syracuse had Gbinije and Richardson exploit their defenders in one-on-one situations and take them toward the basket off the dribble. Typically, Gbinije and Richardson were each able to get a step on their defenders -- something that, in Richardson's case, we hadn't yet seen.
In these situations, St. Bonaventure had two options: send a help defender, or don't. When the Bonnies did send a second defender, it allowed Gbinije and Richardson to kick to open shooters. In part because of that, SU went 14-of-25 from the field in the second half and shot 38.5 percent (5-of-13) from 3. Gbinije and Richardson each logged three assists; in the first half, the Orange logged just five assists as a hole.
Here, Gbinije beats Idris Taqqee off the dribble, forcing Richardson's defender, Jaylen Adams, to slide into the paint to help. That frees up Richardson, who drains the open 3 after Gbinije kicks to him.
When St. Bonaventure opted not to send help defenders when Gbinije or Richardson drove, it created another issue for the Bonnies: there was no one in the paint to prevent either player from making something happen. In the clip below, Taqqee tries to defend Richardson, but Richardson ends up drawing a foul on Taqqee and scoring in the paint.
This offensive approach helped Syracuse storm all the way back and do so quickly. Despite trailing by eight with 18 minutes to play, the Orange managed to pull within one by the 10:48 mark and tie the game at the 9:03 mark.
And they didn't look back, either, taking the lead at the 8:36 mark and never relinquishing it. It prompted Boeheim to praise how the offense played in the second half. He singled out Gbinije in particular, calling the guard "tremendous." For his part, Gbinije gave credit to the offensive scheme.
Said Gbinije: "We just realized they really couldn't guard us (when we were doing that)."