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Does Syracuse men’s basketball have a rebounding problem?

Did you know that it’s more difficult to rebound out of a zone?

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s tough for Jim Boeheim’s team to rebound out of the zone,” the TV analyst will suggest after the Syracuse Orange gives up offensive rebounds on three consecutive possessions. “Part of being a zone team is having to deal with that.”

*drink*

Syracuse is 1-3 in its last four games and has been out-rebounded in each. The team is 261st in the country in rebounding differential at minus-1.7 per game — but the problem may be even greater.

The Orange are being out-rebounded by 3.5 rebounds per game in ACC play, but are undefeated in games where it wins the rebounding battle. In its losses, SU averages a minus-7.4 rebound differential per game.

This is as bad as the team has been since... two seasons ago.

OK, so not that long ago but consider this: Syracuse didn’t make the tournament two seasons ago. In fact, that team was (not surprisingly) the worst rebounding team SU has had in the last five years.

I use the last five years because the last five years have been similar in terms of regular season outcomes: 18-20 wins in each. Call this the “Bubble Era”.

Bubble Era Rebounding Differential in ACC

Per-game Rebounding Differential Postseason Result
Per-game Rebounding Differential Postseason Result
2018-19 -3.5 TBD
2017-18 0.8 Sweet 16
2016-17 -3.6 Missed tournament
2015-16 -1.9 Final Four
2014-15 -1.7 Postseason ban

This season’s team is the most similar to the 2016-17 Syracuse team by a decent margin. The two teams that made successful postseason runs in the Bubble Era were far more competitive on the glass.

So, does Syracuse have a rebounding problem?

2016-17 comparison

The 2016-17 Syracuse team didn’t make the tournament, but not for its inability to compete. Consider that the ‘16-’17 squad had big wins over the likes of Duke, Virginia and Florida State. That team didn’t make the tournament because of its ugly losses despite showing that it was capable of competing with anyone at its best.

That doesn’t mean fans should be relieved that this season’s team’s closest Bubble Era comparison is the 2016-17 team. The ‘16-’17 team was vulnerable to some bad losses, including five to teams that finished the season below .500.

A breakdown of the percentages of rebounds collected on both ends of the floor suggests the team actually could be worse than it was in ‘16-’17.

Bubble Era Offensive/Defensive Rebounding Percentages in ACC

Defensive Rebounding Percentage Offensive Rebounding Percentage
Defensive Rebounding Percentage Offensive Rebounding Percentage
2018-19 70 32
2017-18 73 33
2016-17 71 32
2015-16 71 36
2014-15 74 34

This season’s team ranks the worst in defensive rebound percentage and tied for worst in offensive rebounding percentage.

It would not do this season’s team justice to write it off as the worst rebounding team in the Bubble Era, so I thought out some potential explanations.

Different defenses? Well...

Difference in competition? I already narrowed the data down to the ACC opponents and a quick look at the ACC team’s rebounding rankings suggests that the league is perhaps even slightly weaker this season than it has been in the past.

Smaller team? Syracuse’s average height weighted by time played this seaon is 6-foot-7 which is an inch smaller than last year’s team, but is right in line with the three years before that.

Three-point shooting? I took a look at SU’s opponent’s three-point attempt numbers to see if it would correlate with its rebounding percentages. A longer shot would theoretically produce longer, more unpredictable rebounds which could serve as part of the explanation of the variation in team’s rebounding percentages. It turns out that opponents are shooting 47 percent of their shots from three so far this season — the highest percentage in the Bubble Era — in the same year that Syracuse happens to be the worst it has been on the defensive glass. Coincidence? Here’s how the rest of the numbers correlate:

Opponent Three-Point Attempts vs Syracuse Defensive Rebounding Percentage

Percent of Three-Point Attempts Defensive Rebounding Percentage
Percent of Three-Point Attempts Defensive Rebounding Percentage
2018-19 47 70
2017-18 44 73
2016-17 40 71
2015-16 40 71
2014-15 37 74

The Bubble Era data sample isn’t large enough to produce any broad conclusions, but there is reason to believe that part of SU’s struggles on the defensive glass could be attributed to opponent’s three-point shooting.

However, for this to carry any validity, a similar trend should occur with Syracuse’s offensive rebounding percentages.

Syracsue Three-Point Attempts vs Offensive Rebounding Percentage

Percent of Three-Point Attempts Offensive Rebounding Percentage
Percent of Three-Point Attempts Offensive Rebounding Percentage
2018-19 44 32
2017-18 34 33
2016-17 40 32
2015-16 43 36
2014-15 31 34

And, well, nope.

Attributing Syracuse’s rebounding struggles to an increase in opponent’s three-point is a logical narrative, but wouldn’t be backed by too reliable of data.

One could feasibly argue that an opponent shooting more threes affects Syracuse more because of the zone than Syracuse shooting more threes against its opponent. There could be truth in that, but it would be difficult to prove.

If we can’t find a reason for the problem, could we locate the root of the problem for this year’s team?

Back line / guard splits

To determine if there is an ideal percentage of rebounds that the back line of the zone contributes to the overall total, I took a look at the percentages. Specifically, I looked at the percentage of the total number of rebounds the back line contributed from the Bubble Era to determine if there was a correlation with the team’s overall success. Here are the numbers:

Back Line Rebounding Percentage vs Overall Rebounding Success

Back Line Contribution Percentage Per-game Rebounding Differential
Back Line Contribution Percentage Per-game Rebounding Differential
2018-19 75.5 -3.5
2017-18 79.3 0.8
2016-17 76.8 -3.6
2015-16 74.9 -1.9
2014-15 68 -1.7

This data could suggest that Syracuse has been slightly more successful when its guards are involved more on the glass. The correlation isn’t significant, however.

If the issues are not likely rooted in an increase in three-point shooting and aren’t due to an imbalance of contributions between guards and forwards, perhaps this is simply a weaker rebounding team than past years. Considering there has been such a dramatic decline in rebounding margin since last year, the changes between this year and last could come into focus.

Elijah Hughes is the only significant difference between this year and last when looking at this season’s ACC numbers. There is a chance that he is part of the explanation and a quick look at his efficiency would make this evident. Hughes’ per-40 minute rebounding total is at 5.3 rebounds. Fellow back-line wingers Oshae Brissett (8.4) and Marek Dolezaj (7.5) exceed him by a decent margin.

A stark 4.3 average rebound differential drop from last year to this goes beyond any single player, however. The addition of Hughes into the rotation could not have such a large impact. The decline in rebounding has been team-wide.

With Syracuse as good as its been on the defensive end in the Bubble Era, its defensive rebounding could be the key to success in the NCAA Tournament. The Orange are 7-2 in games in which its opponent rebounds less than 25 percent of its misses.