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Syracuse men’s basketball still struggling to score even with new talent

Time and returning talent stand on the Orange’s side after they slid from the top 25 in NYC. Yet continuations of issues from last year do lend some reason to worry about SU’s start.

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic-Connecticut at Syracuse Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange last began the season 3-2 in 2005-06, then went on a magical run through the Big East Tournament to get to the NCAAs that March. It worked then, but there’s a fine line between starting behind schedule and fully progressing into a slow season.

SU hasn’t done the latter yet despite two losses in New York City featuring sporadic offensive production and a slide right out of the rankings. But despite Frank Howard’s four-game absence, and all three point guards missing preseason preparation, there’s a disconcerting trend appearing: Many of Syracuse’s struggles were continuations of issues the Orange faced a year ago.

“I’m more than concerned (about the offense),” Jim Boeheim said in NYC. He added that Syracuse wasn’t in sync and hadn’t played well on offense in any game to that point.

Through five contests, the Orange shot 39.7 percent (311th), 23.3 percent on three pointers (346th), 69 percent from the line (not nice) and ranked 220th with 73.6 points per game, bolstered by dropping 77 on Colgate at the Dome. Their 57 assists rank 248th in NCAA Division I.

Injuries to Howard and Carey propelled Tyus Battle toward point guard duty, something he’s never done in college. Carey returned in New York City and played exceptionally through two games, busting out step-back jumpers off crossovers and scoring 40 on 13-for-22 shooting; a godsend that Boeheim said kept the team competitive through a 83-76 loss to UConn.

The “it’s early” card does play through comparison. Now-No. 21 Oregon lost to then-unranked Iowa prior to the Ducks’ win over SU. The defending NCAA champions in Villanova fell from No. 8 to completely out of the AP Top 25 in week three, then won three straight. Teams often slip up before league play, especially when they schedule games against Bol Bol.

That it’s November, however, does not guarantee that Syracuse — seemingly poised for an offensive turnaround behind additions of Elijiah Hughes, Buddy Boeheim and Carey — evolves beyond the habits carried over from 2017-18. The Orange boast minor improvements, but only relative to the basement their offense sat in all of last year.

Sets heavy in isolation remain. Brissett is 32 percent from the field and unable to hit a three following a hot preseason, though Boeheim said his shot still looks good in practice. There has not been an increase in layered passing or quality ball and player movement. Many seconds of shot clock go unused, or wasted by passing across the perimeter.

Hughes is shooting 31 percent from three with half his shot attempts coming from there. Buddy Boeheim is 10.3 percent from the field. Between Paschal Chukwu, Bourama Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj, SU attempts fewer than 7.8 shots per game at the big man position, down from 11.1 in 17-18, further relegating the offense to the wings.

Syracuse sustained horrific shooting a year ago by ranking 112th in field goals attempted (53.92 per game) and 18th in free throws attempted (21.81). They’re currently 278th (61.4) and 71st (28.8) in those categories.

In turn, the Orange have increased their tempo from 62.9 to 69.4 in terms of KenPom’s opponent-adjusted possessions per 40 minutes stat. It’s a modest jump into the top-300, but one that naturally trades more volume on offense for needing more stops on defense.

Virginia famously reduced its pace to 59.4 (351st) last year to enhance its defense and rode to the top of the sport — before they lost to No. 16 UMBC in March and made a dog famous. Syracuse didn’t catch as much attention, but ranked 345th in the same category employing a similar tactic to isolate the team’s strengths.

Transition has worked for SU, especially when they’re able to turn defense into offense. Hughes can dribble effectively after forcing turnovers, but has primarily been a spot-up shooter in the half-court offense. Our own Dylan Finer also talked about this point a bit.

When the game speeds up, it can come flying back at the defense. But Syracuse beat UConn 20-11 in the turnover game after early giveaways by Carey, and ranks 48th overall in limiting TOs. So that is a category Howard’s return to the rotation can’t improve substantially.

Howard’s defense is what the Orange missed most. He led the Atlantic Coast Conference in steals (1.88 per game) last season with a +2.3 defensive box plus/minus, The starting back court of Battle (-0.2) and Buddy (+0.3) hasn’t approach that, and yielded a devastating 12-for-21 three-point shooting performance to UConn.

Boeheim predicts he’ll play Howard, Carey and Battle as a trio, which likely positions Howard and Carey at the top of the zone. While Carey is posting a +3.5 DBPM to begin his career, he’ll likely benefit from the heavy communication and feel for defense Howard displays. He picked a number of these same passes off last year.

Boeheim chose to highlight the interior defense of Chukwu, which allowed Eric Cobb to go off on 6-for-10 shooting, 13 points and 13 rebounds. Overall the defense has slipped from 63.8 to 64.6 points per game allowed, though KenPom still rates them fifth with a 90.5 defensive rating.

“We’re not physical, you have to be more physical with (Cobb) and we’re not,” he said. “It doesn’t appear that they can do that right now ... they’re not affecting the game.”

It’ll be worth monitoring their defense going forward, especially after Bol shredded the Orange like cheddar cheese for 26 of Oregon’s 80 points. Compounding factors like newly-emphasized foul calls and how often Boeheim plays his prime group of Howard, Battle, Brissett, Dolezaj and Chukwu will impact the team’s ability to match last year’s defense.

Pressing, which Boeheim will do to generate offense, also hurts the defense against teams that can break it. UConn did with ease.

If defense was the core issue, Boeheim likely would’ve reunited last year’s starters against Colgate. But stemming from two losses in NYC, the emphasis appears to be on offense, with the Orange featuring a primary lineup of Howard, Battle, Hughes and Brissett. They need buckets.