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Syracuse’s second 7-5 start in four years shows similarities, differences with 2016-17

The pluses/minuses vs. the other Orange team to experience this rough of a start.

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Syracuse Richard Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team (7-5, 1-1) has won two straight games, but it may not feel like it. After all, SU fans are used to a certain level of play from Jim Boeheim’s squad, and this year, it hasn’t necessarily been there.

While far from a “fun” fact, this is just the second time under Boeheim that the team’s started 7-5. The other is a familiar one to most: the 2016-17 squad that wound up 19-15 (10-8 in the ACC).

When comparing the two squads, there are similarities and differences.

First, the similarities.

Both teams were led by a primary scorer whose success largely dictated the offense’s overall abilities. In 2016-17, that was transfer Andrew White III. This time around, it’s (also transfer) Elijah Hughes. White averaged 18.5 points per game that season on 44.1% shooting from the floor and 40.3% from three-point range. Thus far in 2019-20, Hughes is averaging 19.8 ppg on 45.5% shooting and 42.3% from three.

Despite the seemingly heavy reliance on one player for the offensive firepower, both teams ran pretty efficient offenses. That year’s was top 30 according to KenPom, while 2019-20 is top-40 so far. Both teams were pretty reliant on outside shooting and had minimal presence inside. For the 2016-17 Orange team, the “center” role was largely occupied by Tyler Lydon and Taurean Thompson with Dajuan Coleman injured. This year, we’ve been relying on Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe at the five. Three-point shooting was

Defensively, things were rough for both groups as well — at least compared to Boeheim teams of recent vintage. Syracuse was 119th on the defensive end in 2016-17, and they’re 78th this time around (both per KenPom). Both teams looked different at the guard spots — two grad seniors then vs. a freshman and a sophomore now. But the lack of experience in this zone was the common denominator.

Early on, that team also got eaten alive by power conference teams. They were 0-5 against P5, Big East and AAC teams through the first 12 games, and SU’s 1-5 this time around. That squad lost one at Barclays Center (to eventual Final Four team South Carolina), while this year’s team dropped two down in Brooklyn — to Oklahoma State and Penn State. The 2016-17 schedule featured no marquee wins through 12 games, just like this year’s.

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Syracuse Richard Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

And the major differences.

As mentioned, overall experience at the guard spots was different, with White and John Gillon both being grad transfers/fifth-year players, while Buddy Boeheim is a sophomore this year and Joe Girard is a freshman. Those two are part of the defensive struggles so far with the zone. They’re also part of the Orange taking almost 5.2 more threes per game this season vs. that one, though this year’s team is hitting them at a rate three full percentage points lower than 2016-17 (35.4% vs. 38.4%).

The expectations around the 2016-17 were actually relatively high. They came into the season ranked 19th, and got up to 18th before losing their first game. This year’s team had minimal expectations beyond maybe challenging for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though — and also the biggest source of hope from a postseason perspective — is the fact that the 2016-17 team wound up with a couple bad losses by this point already and this year’s doesn’t have one yet. That squad dropped an ugly 52-50 game to a sub-.500 UConn team and lost by 33 to St. John’s at the Dome. The 2019-20 team has been losing by double digits to power conference teams not named Georgia Tech, but none of those losses are “bad” on the resume just yet: Virginia, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Iowa and Georgetown.

What’s ahead

The 2016-17 team improved over the course of the season, and won 10 of 18 games in ACC play. They scored some of the requisite major upsets (Florida State, Virginia, Duke) to get back into the NCAA Tournament. But without much success away from home, they wound up the first team out when Selection Sunday rolled around.

For 2019-20, the story hasn’t been written yet, but as discussed a week ago in this space, the ACC’s “down” year and this season’s conference schedule aren’t actually doing us many favors. Most of the league is outside the top 50 in NET rating right now, and even those inside of it have some glaring flaws. For the time being, Syracuse has just three road top 50 opportunities for a win now. There’s potentially just one at home (Duke).

Also, as mentioned, it’s still a crapshoot what it’s going to take to make the NCAA Tournament field, though the ACC’s struggles won’t help matters there. The 2016-17 team was in the conversation after beating top-10 teams at home and winning 10 games in a very strong conference. This year, winning 10-12 games in a lackluster ACC could include all marginal victories. Even if this team finds a way to improve over the course of the year, that resume may not be enough to get back into the conversation.