In each of Syracuse's last two games, the Orange have turned to the same lineup to pull away down the stretch. That lineup consists of four of SU's starters — Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Malachi Richardson and Tyler Roberson. But instead of DaJuan Coleman, it features Tyler Lydon at center.
That lineup, which wasn't used in the season opener against Lehigh, was a combined plus-19 against St. Bonaventure and Elon. Syracuse's starting lineup, meanwhile, is minus-3 through the season's first three games.
All of that begs the question: ahead of this week's Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, should Syracuse alter its starting lineup? Or, in other words, should Lydon start at center in place of Coleman?
It's certainly something Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim should consider. Unlike Coleman, Lydon is a threat from the perimeter on offense. Given that, Lydon has the ability to stretch opposing centers away from the paint — something that helps SU's offense in a number of ways. And at least so far, Lydon hasn't been the liability in the middle of the 2-3 zone that many expected him to be. In fact, he's actually played exceptionally well at that spot.
The main issue with Syracuse's starting lineup, to this point, has been the fact that it features two players — Coleman and Roberson — who are mostly incapable of scoring outside of the paint on offense. Because of this, opposing defenders responsible for guarding Coleman and Roberson have the luxury of planting themselves near the rim for the duration of possessions. (That's perfectly legal in college basketball, since there is no defensive three-second violation.)
When Coleman and Roberson are on the court together, this creates a very clogged paint area, making it especially difficult for SU players to drive to the basket. This became evident during the first half of Syracuse's 66-55 win against Elon on Saturday.
In the clip below, Cooney seemingly looks to drive to the rim, but realizes the impracticality of that plan, given the number of bodies in the lower half of the paint. So he instead pulls up for a midrange jumper, which clanks off the back rim.
In fairness, that's not an especially bad look for Cooney, but it's one defenses will live with. Last season, according to Hoop-Math, Cooney shot just 37.2 percent on midrange jumpers. And he's not the only Syracuse player who struggles in that department. Gbinije shot a relatively average 43.7 percent on those shots last season, while Kaleb Joseph made only 34.7 percent of his.
Things get easier, though, when Lydon is plugged into the game for Coleman. Take a look at how this Syracuse possession ends in an easy layup for Roberson when Coleman isn't there to also take up space in the lane:
It's important to take note of everything that's going on in that clip. For starters, Joseph beats his man off the dribble, forcing Elon to send a help defender. But that can't be Dmitri Thompson, who doesn't want to stray too far away from Richardson. Instead, Jack Anton, Roberson's defender, comes out to meet Joseph in the middle of the paint. That leaves Roberson wide open, and Joseph finds him for the easy bucket.
This play doesn't work if Coleman is in the game instead of Lydon. If Coleman were playing, Patrick Ryan, No. 42, would've been able to hang around in the paint and prevent Roberson from scoring an uncontested layup. Instead, though, Ryan is defending Lydon, and he's forced to respect Lydon's perimeter capabilities. So when Lydon steps out of the paint, Ryan goes with him — and that’s what frees Roberson.
In these scenarios, defenses really just have to pick their poison. Thompson could have slid into the paint to stop Joseph from penetrating, but that would've given Richardson a wide open 3. Anton could have stayed with Roberson, but Joseph would've then had an easier path to the bucket to score himself. Ryan could have slid over to defend Roberson when Anton left him, but that would have freed up Lydon for an open look.
The concern, of course, is this: How can a lineup with the 6-foot-8, 210-pound Lydon at center survive on defense? So far, though, it hasn't been an issue. Lydon is averaging 2.3 blocks per game, suggesting that he'll be fine in his role as a rim protector. According to Basketball Reference, he also leads Syracuse in defensive win shares and is second only to Chino Obokoh in defensive box plus/minus.
Of course, all of this could change as the season progresses and the competition gets more difficult. For now, however, Syracuse would be best served by sticking with what's working, and what's working are lineups with Tyler Lydon in the middle.