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Small-ball not in Syracuse basketball’s plans but should it be?

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Jim Boeheim courted a lineup of Frank Howard, Tyus Battle, Howard Washington, Oshae Brissett and Marek Dolezaj vs. Colgate. Then trounced the idea of three-guard lineups post-game, but could that group help Syracuse’s ailing offense in spurts?

NCAA Basketball: Colgate at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Almost two months to the day Jim Boeheim revealed his prophecies of what the 2017-18 Syracuse Orange would feature, it’s easy to go back and trounce one of his predictions. In fact, he did it himself after the Orange improved to 8-1 with a win over Colgate last week.

Tomer Langer of The Daily Orange asked about the three-guard lineup, an idea that Boeheim himself proposed Syracuse would likely play often this season. Boeheim shifted and completely denounced his commitment, the group got some run toward the end of the first half but he made it clear small-ball would not be featured prominently in rotation.

“We’re not as good defensively, don’t rebound as well,” he said, before reaffirming himself. “Tyus (Battle) is better at the guard spot. That’s where he’s more comfortable. That’s where he’s better. That’s the strength of our defense and when we move him to forward and play (Washington) we hurt the guard spot defensively and hurt the forward spot defensively.”

He then went a step further and likened the idea of going small, a normal strategy in today’s game he employed as recently as last season, to self-destruction.

“We will try that on occasions, but I know if I jump off the Brooklyn Bridge it’s not going to be a good result. I don’t have to wait and see.”

Boeheim shunned the idea of small-ball for Syracuse, but evidence from that Colgate game speaks kindly of its potential. What’s important to ask is whether the Orange is actually worse off playing that lineup in spurts or is Boeheim stubbornly sticking to his personal opinion on the subject, one that’s wavered since the preseason.

There’s layers and nuances to this proposition, it isn’t totally fair to say Boeheim contradicted his preseason comments, context has changed in two months. Geno Thorpe left the team, leaving Orange with only three rotation guards period.

Syracuse has also emerged as one of the best defenses in the nation, using its nearly unmatched height and length rotating between Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe inside with a tall power forward next to them and three long wing players.

It’s no surprise Boeheim loves the starting lineup. SU is 8-1, the 2-3 zone looks as tightly-anchored in personnel as it has been in years, and most importantly to this conversation the starters look like a Syracuse Orange team, one Boeheim has been accustomed to for over 40 years.

They’re long, they’re athletic, they block shots, they irritate opposing guards at the top between Frank Howard and Tyus Battle’s steady perimeter defense (50th in steals). Opponents are still attempting to nail the 2-3 with the three-pointer, but as Boeheim pointed out after the Colgate win, they’re getting to the free throw line less in the process (45th best in opposition FTA/game).

Offense is all that’s missing, but it’s not a subtle shortcoming. The team is 238th in points per-game, nearly 300th in assists and shoots 28 percent on three-pointers (335th in the nation). Though SU has improved 124 spots in one year to 17th in scoring defense, it dropped 132 slots in scoring offense.

It shows visually, with offensive sets consisting of passing along the three-point arc with two big men clogging the lane. SU’s two centers do not shoot, its power forwards rarely do and its guards aren’t elite outside themselves. The lack of floor-spacing shows in a defender standing 10 feet from Dolezaj one possession as he backed out to 20-22 feet from the hoop.

Andrew White III, John Gillon, Tyler Lydon floating around the perimeter and letting it fly behind a massive volume of three-pointers (23 attempts per-game) didn’t look like Syracuse basketball, but it did boost the team into the top-six in Atlantic Coast Conference scoring. However, it wasn’t an effective formula for consistency and bad losses relegated the group to the NIT.

The formula for success Syracuse is depending on this year is far more reliable nightly and even led to a fairly competitive effort against then-No. 2 Kansas until late. Balance is key though, and Boeheim knows the offense is a glaring issue.

“We struggle offensively,” he said after the Colgate win. “I’m not going to run a clinic. We need a lot ... our movement, some of the play calls, some of the sets we’re in.”

He went on to direct more pointed criticism at Matthew Moyer, who he said was looking to rebound when he should have been looking to catch and vice-versa. Then he applauded Marek Dolezaj, for his “winning plays” and ability to impact the game “without scoring.”

That favor played out with 5:18 to go in the first half. Washington entered for Moyer, Syracuse led 28-20, and Boeheim did something he said he wasn’t comfortable with: he went small, subbing Washington for Moyer.

Immediately, visually, the floor spread out. Oshae Brissett has the ability to shoot outside, despite an ugly 23.7 percent split outside through nine games. Brissett and Dolezaj also hold their own on the boards, averaging 15.1 rebounds between them per-game.

Washington caught a pass with the ball swinging around the wing and hit his first NCAA basket, a three on the right wing.

Howard turned the ball over before the media timeout, but after that and two ensuing offensive boards, Colgate tried to match Washington with four three-point attempts and missed them all.

Then Brissett hop-stepped inside and dunked on everybody. A few plays later, Battle got the ball in the corner and swooped to the rim without much resistance inside for a baseline layup.

In over five minutes of small-ball, Syracuse was only out-rebounded 4-3, shot 4-of-7 and outscored the Raiders 10-4. Boeheim even claimed Dolezaj, who recorded a steal through the stretch, is good at center. He has occasionally worked there in practice.

The second half hosted no SU small-ball, despite its hint of success. Chukwu played the final 20 minutes, even with Sidibe out and Boeheim noticing that the former was breaking to the corners slowly in rotation due to fatigue. It didn’t matter.

Boeheim’s forte is defense and he’s going to coach this group to be consistent and strong in that area, but a good team can’t completely sacrifice offense. Battle has provided enough alone through non-conference, but it’ll get harder to maintain 20.7 points per-game scoring in ACC play.

The shortcomings of small-ball are obvious; Syracuse loses its rebounding advantage, its solid interior defense from its two centers and length up top with Battle moving to the back line. But the Colgate game displayed the strengths of at least giving the opposing defense a different look, one that opens up the floor and could make it easier for everyone to get involved.

The reporter tried to break in as Boeheim, shrugged off the idea of small-ball, “is that because Pachal’s not in...?”

“What did I say? We’re not as good defensively.”