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Syracuse zone usually yields high assist rate, but low shooting percentages

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Just looking into a theory...

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Syracuse vs Duke Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season is over. But that won’t stop us -- or anyone else — from bringing up SU whenever possible.

Exhibit A? These interesting notes from Ken Pomeroy:

Obviously Pomeroy wouldn’t volunteer that sort of information unless it were true. But I did want to see how much the stat actually carried through from year to year. And more importantly, whether that high assist percentage ever aligned with higher shooting percentages. So I dove into some numbers on KenPom, just because.

First up, Syracuse opponent’s assist rates over the last 10 years:

  • 2018: 73.8 (351st)
  • 2017: 67.2 (351st)
  • 2016: 65.6 (349th)
  • 2015: 65.8 (347th)
  • 2014: 63.9 (349th)
  • 2013: 67.6 (345th)
  • 2012: 62.5 (331st)
  • 2011: 63.3 (334th)
  • 2010: 63.4 (338th)
  • 2009: 60.8 (314th)

You’ll notice a shift over time, and that directly aligns with Syracuse’s emphasis on the 2-3 zone, and its effectiveness over time. The 2009 team was far from a defensive powerhouse, and the numbers indicate as much. While the program was obviously very good on defense, you saw the switch sort of flip in 2013 — the first of the two most recent Final Four runs. The last six years have all seen SU allowing one of the highest assist rates in the country -- including the highest one for each of the last two seasons.

The assist percentage alone isn’t an effective measure of the zone, however. In those past six years, the Orange had defensive efficiency ratings ranked fifth (2018), 119th (2017), 18th (2016), 20th (2015), 13th (2014), and sixth (2013).

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Syracuse vs Miami Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It should be no surprise that the 2017 team, complete with newcomers to the zone and the resulting inexperience, was the lowest ranked by a mile. Meanwhile, the two Final Four teams in there were among the best of these defensive units we’ve had of late.

That’s where the opposing shooting percentages also come into play as an indicator of whether or not the high assist rates actually mattered. Most opposing coaches -- aside from Tom Izzo, of course — know that the best way to beat the zone is to create ball movement. And against the 2018 Orange team in particular, the best bet was to work it inside and try to create foul trouble.

We’re already aware that Syracuse typically allows lower three-point shooting percentages. But what about from inside the arc? The last 10 years of two-point shooting percentages, just like we looked at assist rates:

  • 2018: 45.1 (15th)
  • 2017: 49.6 (117th)
  • 2016: 48.1 (138th)
  • 2015: 46.0 (103rd)
  • 2014: 45.5 (62nd)
  • 2013: 42.7 (21st)
  • 2012: 42.5 (14th)
  • 2011: 44.4 (39th)
  • 2010: 46.3 (112th)
  • 2009: 48.1 (168th)
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Syracuse vs Duke Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

These results are a bit more surprising, but don’t necessarily tell the full story either. The best teams had great interior defenders, the lesser ones didn’t, really (save 2010, which had both Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku). Also, a team that locks down on defense inside the arc will force more threes -- many of them ill-advised shots.

In the last 10 years, just two seasons (2014 and 2017) were outside of the top 50 in opposing three-point percentage, and most of those were actually top 30.

None of this is earth-shattering for Syracuse fans. We know what the zone’s done over time, and it’s clear that when it’s worked best, the Orange have advanced further in the NCAA Tournament. You’d rather an opposing team had 20 assists toward 60 points versus 25 toward 80 every time. The keys are the shooting percentages and the number of baskets we’re allowing, particularly threes.

So if we’re prioritizing anything on defense, perhaps let’s look a bit more at threes. The assists will be there no matter what. With the zone, might as well hone in on what we can (perceptively) control.