It's been well-documented that Syracuse has struggled to rebound this season, particularly on the defensive glass. According to kenpom.com, SU is allowing opposing offenses to grab 38.2% of possible rebounds, which ranks the Orange dead last among all teams in major conferences in that category.
To combat that, temporary Syracuse head coach Mike Hopkins hinted on Tuesday that the Orange will go to its bigger lineup more often in the future. That would mean more minutes for center Dajuan Coleman, who has spent significant time on the bench this season while Tyler Lydon has patrolled the center spot and Tyler Roberson has accounted for most of the power forward minutes.
The bigger lineup that Hopkins referred to would likely feature Coleman, Lydon and Roberson all on the court together. And with four winnable games remaining on Syracuse's non-conference schedule, Hopkins certainly has the right to use those games to tinker with things and conduct different trial and error experiments. But as I wrote on Tuesday, I'm skeptical that the Orange should change anything.
We can begin by assuming that Syracuse's defensive rebounding troubles aren't an accident. As head coach Jim Boeheim pointed out Thursday on his weekly radio show, it's something that comes with playing zone defense, and it's long been a problem for the Orange. Per kenpom.com, SU has finished a season ranked 260th or worse among Division I teams in defensive rebounding percentage 10 times since the 2001-02 campaign.
If that's not enough evidence of this being a problem caused by the zone and not simply by personnel, consider this: Syracuse has done a pretty respectable job this season on the offensive glass. It's grabbing 32.7% of possible offensive boards, which ranks 104th in the country, per kenpom.com. And there's a reason that a zone team would specifically struggle to rebound on defense: it's difficult for players to box out effectively when they aren't playing man-to-man. Instead of boxing out a player, they're often just boxing out an area.
But SU gladly pays that price in exchange for some pretty exceptional benefits of playing Boeheim's 2-3 zone. Since the 2001-02 season, Syracuse has 10 times ranked in the top 30 of kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rating — a statistic that estimates the points a team would allow per 100 possessions against the average Division I offense. Through nine games this season, SU ranks 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency with a 94.5 rating. (It's worth noting that getting an offensive rebound doesn't signal the start of a new possession, another testament to SU's defense.)
As Boeheim also pointed out, the Orange typically force opposing offenses into difficult shots and often create turnovers at a high rate. Ten times since 2001-02, Syracuse has had a top 50 defense in terms of the effective field goal percentage it allows opposing offenses to shoot, according to kenpom.com.
Additionally, SU has begun to frequently force turnovers in recent years; in each of the past four seasons, the Orange have ranked 53rd or better — according to kenpom.com — in defensive turnover percentage, which measures the percentage of possessions that end in a turnover.
This season has been no different. Syracuse currently ranks 36th in defensive effective field goal percentage, with teams effectively shooting 44.2% against the Orange. SU is also forcing turnovers on 22% of possessions, which puts the Orange at 44th in the country.
And, as it turns out, those turnovers have helped the Orange slightly more than their rebounding issues have hurt them. So far this season, Syracuse is averaging 16.8 points per game off of turnovers, whereas its opponents are averaging 15 second chance points per game. That gap will likely grow if the Orange can figure out their transition offense; according to Hoop-Math, they're effectively shooting just 56.7% in transition this season, which ranks 159th-best in the country.
You could argue that Syracuse could use a bigger lineup and still reap the same benefits of playing zone, though I'm not sure that would necessarily be the case.
Going any bigger than SU's most frequently-used lineup — consisting of Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Malachi Richardson, Roberson and Lydon — would mean shifting Lydon to one of the forward spots. That would be a risky move.
Playing most of his minutes at center, Lydon has been exceptional on defense this season. According to kenpom.com, he's blocked 8.0% of 2-point field goal attempts while he's been on the court, ranking him 74th among eligible Division I players. He's also coming away with steals on 2.9% of possessions, the third-best mark on SU and the 303rd-best in the country. By contrast, Coleman is blocking 5.8% of 2-point shots and getting steals on 2.2% of possessions.
Lydon is also leading Syracuse by grabbing 17.6% of possible defensive rebounds when he's on the court. Coleman, meanwhile, is pulling down 16.7% of possible defensive rebounds.
By moving Lydon around, Syracuse would potentially sacrifice rim protection, steals and, yes, defensive rebounds.
And even if Syracuse were to become a better defensive rebounding team with a bigger lineup, it still might not be worth it. There would, in all likelihood, be a gigantic and detrimental tradeoff on the offensive end.
SU currently ranks 61st in college basketball with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 108.0, according to kenpom.com. The Orange have been efficient on that end largely because of their ability to stretch the floor, which is a credit to the perimeter capabilities Lydon brings with him, particularly when he's playing either power forward or center. When he's at one of those positions, it means Syracuse has four perimeter-oriented players on the court — typically him, Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson, with Kaleb Joseph and Franklin Howard also seeing occasional playing time.
Syracuse is shooting 44.8% from the floor with Lydon playing either power forward or center. But when he's on the bench or at small forward, Syracuse is shooting just 34.8%.
When Lydon is on the bench or at small forward, that means Coleman and Roberson — neither of whom operate much outside of the paint — are on the court together. And that all but destroys SU's spacing, which in turn makes it more difficult to get high-percentage shots.
It just wouldn't make sense for the Orange to be OK with taking that much of a hit to their offensive production, especially when they probably wouldn't benefit defensively, either.
So while it might be tempting for Syracuse to do whatever it can to fix its defensive rebounding woes, its best option is probably to not fix anything at all.