Most of us spent Thanksgiving week spending time with family, eating (a lot) and shopping. The Syracuse basketball team spent the holiday weekend in the Bahamas, and it returned as champion of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
As you can probably guess, the team that returned from it's tropical vacation is not the same one that left Central New York after a few ugly wins in the Carrier Dome. The Orange knocked off back-to-back ranked teams and now boast a freshly minted Top-20 ranking in both major polls this week.
The Associated Press was particularly impressed with Syracuse's paradise road trip, moving the Orange all the way to 14th.
So while this is the same group of players that managed only 57 points at home against Lehigh and needed a furious second-half push to knock off St. Bonaventure, the team is playing on a different level. Let's have a look at how Syracuse transformed itself into a nationally ranked team.
Hitting the Long Ball
After watching the Orange in the Bahamas, you can immediately point to their three-point shooting as a reason the team was so successful. Syracuse's best lineup featured four three-point shooters in Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon. As Michael Burke pointed out, that foursome along with Tyler Roberson has been the Orange's most efficient lineup.
Head coach Jim Boeheim said, via Seth Davis of SI.com, that having four shooters is "not an easy cover. Villanova has had three guys in the past shooting threes, but if you have the fourth guy, it makes [the opponent's] defense hard."
Maybe that's why Boeheim is a Hall of Famer; he knows what he's talking about. Davis noted that the Orange hit 46.6 percent of its threes in the Bahamas and knocked down 34 altogether. When you are capable of lighting it up from deep, it can make up for the times when your team struggles in other areas.
One could argue that relying on three-pointers is not an effective strategy, and the team could struggle if it goes cold from deep. While that's true, it's hard to expect four capable of shooters to all be off on the same night. And the types of deep shots Syracuse has gotten are conducive to shooting at a high percentage.
According to hoop-math.com, Syracuse is hitting 41.1 percent of its threes on the season. However, a whopping 80 percent of the team's made threes have been assisted, meaning the players are looking for each other and creating open shots.
Opponents will have to continue to worry about the Orange's embarrassment of riches on the perimeter. If the players continue to share the ball and create open shots for each other, they can have continued success from deep.
Hard Work Cleaning the Glass
While playing zone will always allow the opposition more opportunities on the offensive glass, this year's team was prone to giving up second chances early on this season.
Against St. Bonaventure, the Orange were thoroughly manhandled on the glass, surrendering 24 offensive rebounds and 43 rebounds in total, 10 more than Syracuse hauled in. The Bonnies turned those offensive rebounds into 29 second-chance points.
And while Syracuse had the slight edge on the glass against Lehigh, the Mountain Hawks did grab 11 offensive boards.
Syracuse did get hurt on the boards again in the Bahamas, but the team did just enough to avoid having it wreck the game. Texas A&M had 17 offensive rebounds, but the Aggies missed countless bunnies from right under the basket on put-backs. However, A&M has a monstrous frontcourt, so it would have been a tough ask for Syracuse to be completely successful on the boards with its small lineup.
This is something that can't be measured with statistics. To start the season, this team had several new pieces in new places, and it took some time for the players to get used to running with one another. But throughout their tropical vacation, the Orange players came together on the court.
The players saw themselves have success against quality opponents, and they know what it takes to win. They also saw some (read: a lot) of shots go in, which will help them going forward.
Lydon broke out, and now he knows he will get playing time and has a better understanding of the numerous ways he can impact a game. Gbinije was named MVP of the tournament, and if he continues to play with as much confidence as he has been, the rest of the team will follow his lead.
The Orange are by no means an unbeatable juggernaut, and you should probably hold off booking a trip to Houston to watch them in the Final Four. After all, it's barely December. But the Orange's performance in the Bahamas definitely roused the nation out of a turkey-induced stupor. If the team continues on this success, we will look back at the Thanksgiving trip as the weekend that jump-started it all.