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Frank Howard, Tyus Battle sharing ball to give Syracuse’s opponents different looks

Injuries to Frank Howard and Jalen Carey early in the season opened the door to a new look for Syracuse basketball: point Battle.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The absence of Frank Howard, Jalen Carey and Howard Washington early this season wiped out all of the Syracuse Orange‘s point guard depth. Or so we thought. It could’ve derailed their season, instead it yielded a blessing when Jim Boeheim realized the value of Tyus Battle... at point guard.

While Howard and Battle swapped bringing the ball up last year, this season Battle assumed point guard responsibilities for four Howard-less games. Boeheim utilized the Battle-led sets against Duke, then again during Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh to the point that Syracuse didn’t play backup point guard Jalen Carey. Minutes for Buddy Boeheim in the game spawned conversation among some about the two freshman, but the Carey DNP was about Battle, not Buddy.

“The one advantage from Frank being out is Tyus learned how to play the point,” Boeheim said on Saturday. “We just let him have the ball right away that way they can’t keep him from getting it. And he scored 10-12 points from the point, which we weren’t doing that. He was trying to run the team early in the year. Now he’s just trying to take advantage of the middle ball screens, because he’s got the ball. He can go two ways, and if you help, he’s got guys open on the wings. But that’s where he’s really good. It was just a matter of, it wasn’t because of Jalen, it was because I wanted to play Ty there at the point. That’s all.”

Battle facilitated in high school but at Syracuse largely contributed off the ball alongside John Gillon and Frank Howard. Last year, Howard said he and Battle shared bringing the ball up at a 60-40 ratio, to give each other rest especially in cases where opposing defender nagged them with full court defense. Due to lack of depth, the two largely had to play every minute of every game in 2017-18.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

That scenario played out on Saturday against Pittsburgh. A young, scrappy and defensively adept team shut out Battle for the first 15 minutes of play while Xavier Johnson attacked Howard on the ball full-court on several occasions.

“It kind of opens me up for some shots,” Howard said. “Give me a chance with a little pesky defender like Johnson to get off me for a second and to get an open look. And give teams a different look. Tyus starts out with the ball so they can’t deny him or double him too easy.”

It also puts Howard in position to communicate to teammates without the pressure of the ball on him. Standing in the corner in the second half, he held Battle off from swinging the ball to him to let more movement develop. Though Howard called it a bad shooting day for himself, the space created on the play allowed him to hit a three.

On another set, Pittsburgh’s press quickly collapsed as the Orange shifted to Battle to initiate the offense. Howard said Battle’s handles allow him to play the role. He can use them to attack the defense directly, sometimes through screens, without risking denial of the ball.

“We’re confident with him on the ball,” Howard said. “He’s been making the right decisions.”

In this case, it appeared that Elijah Hughes set up the ball screen for Battle to score, but Howard will commonly handle the communication on such plays. If defenders still try to overplay him, space opens up for others, which is the point of differentiating looks on offense.

Hughes has created space with his shooting, Dolezaj with his passing, Battle with his play-making. While the Orange’s offense isn’t statistically leaps-and-bounds ahead of the disastrous efficiency of last season, this group can open the floor.

“Space is great right now for us,” Howard said. “We want to play with a lot of space.”

The move isn’t only effective for Syracuse’s scorers. With Battle sets part of the Duke and Pittsburgh games, Paschal Chukwu recorded 18 and 11 rebounds respectively for two of his best rebounding performances of the season. The Orange even out-rebounded the Blue Devils.

Battle and Chukwu then connected on a rare pick-and-roll for the two against Pitt where Chukwu slipped uncontested for a dunk. Space has many layers of impact.

“Teams only got to take a step or two over to help a defender,” Howard said. “Whoever’s guarding him, that can open itself for shots, or even from our bigs, rebound lanes. They can get a step on their defender to go rebound.”

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Howard Washington is presumably out for the season seeking a medical redshirt. Carey’s been better in practice, Boeheim said, but has struggled to consistently break the rotation this year under his coach’s critical microscope.

What remains in the back court — once again — is Howard and Battle. Two players who developed a rapport defensively in one of Syracuse’s best zones ever are now are guiding the Orange toward better fortune on offense.

Howard continues to recover from a preseason ankle injury, seeking balance in his lower body to return to consistent three-point shooting. Battle’s stats are largely in line with last season, but he posted one of his best performances ever against Duke before scoring 19 points in the 15 minutes following his scoreless opening 15 minutes against Pittsburgh.

“We just take turns,” Battle said. “If I’m tired, he brings it up. If he’s tired, I’ll bring it up.”