The Syracuse Orange’s 11 non-conference games dropped last week and had me searching for missing dates.
The ACC’s impending shift to a 20-game schedule for television slashed two games SU previously scheduled itself. After an opener against conference foe Virginia (Nov. 6), more differences arise. Syracuse last played Niagara in 2000, and never faced Seattle before.
James wrote about the highlights of this season’s schedule. The Orange notably lost matchups with Connecticut (98th in KenPom) and Buffalo (22nd). They filled in teams that rated well last year, but feature key departures. Oakland, Cornell and a lone road contest with Georgetown could all become worse opponents than Syracuse’s comparable 2018 tuneups due their lost scoring from graduates or transfers.
On paper the opponents look good using last year’s numbers. If they regress, will an extra pair of ACC games make up for it if an inexperienced Orange lands on the bubble?
Oakland (Dec. 18) — 187th KenPom
Syracuse opponent from 2017-18’s preseason tournament helped that Orange team make 2018’s NCAA Tournament. The Golden Grizzlies ranked No. 187 in KenPom in 2018-19, enough to compare favorably to Eastern Washington (#237) but far behind Old Dominion (#113). Then the transfer portal struck.
Jaevin Cumberland (40% shooting) and Bradon Norris (48%) bolted, critical components of Oakland’s three-point shooting attack. The Grizzlies boasted the 17th-best three-point percentage (38.5%) on 24.7 tries per game. Their shooting inside (52.7%) and out overcame high turnover numbers (426), rebounding woes and a poor defense — with a volume of shot attempts that only ranked 294th.
Syracuse did well to schedule teams like Oakland that project to let it fly. The Orange’s inability to stop Baylor at the three-point line ended SU’s tourney run after one game. Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim, Quincy Guerrier and Joe Girard will need to quickly learn perimeter defense in the 2-3 zone.
Colgate (Nov. 13) — 126th KenPom
Colgate shot 39% from three as a team, ranking top-10 in the country on a high volume (23.2 per game) of attempts. They return Jordan Burns, Rapolas Ivanauskas and Will Rayman after all three drilled 39% or more from three to average double-figures.
Seattle (Nov. 16) picked their spots (19.4 per game) to knock down 37% from three. Bucknell (Nov. 23) shot 885 treys to rank 35th in the NCAA, hitting 35%. Iowa (Dec. 3), Georgetown (Dec. 14) and North Florida (Dec. 21) drove high-powered offenses dragged by lackluster defenses.
The Orange host a slate that they could sweep through offensively while improving their defense. That could benefit the program’s youngest roster in recent memory. Then 20 games against the ACC — the best basketball conference, if you’ve heard — will need to offset any strength of non-conference schedule concerns.
The Orange ranked 17th in non-conference strength of schedule last year. Colgate (No. 126 in KenPom), Cornell (No. 221) and Georgetown (No. 100) returned to this fall’s schedule. Bucknell (No. 145) compares favorably to St. Bonaventure (#121). Oklahoma State (No. 83) fits above UConn (No. 98). Penn State (No. 43) or Ole Miss (No. 50) at Barclays Center could be Oregon (No. 28) without Bol Bol stand-ins.
SU breezed into last year’s tournament during a down year across the NCAA. An entire Power Five conference, the Pac-12, sat dormant while the bottom of the March Madness field almost featured 8-12 Indiana. Keep that in mind with these KenPom ratings too.
Iowa (Dec. 13) — 37th in KenPom
Iowa slides into the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, where the Orange got a critical road win over Ohio State (#44) a year ago. This series tilts to the newly-dubbed “Dome.” The Hawkeyes excelled at creating free throws (25.7 per game and hit 74%), ranking in the top-10. Their 78 PPG reached the top-50, while their 16.4 assists per game ranked 25th.
Iowa’s offense topped the BIG Ten, but they lost leading-scorer Tyler Cook and Isaiah Moss (a 9.2 PPG, 42% 3-pt shooter). That leaves the offense in Luka Gorza’s hands, a 6’11” junior who shoots 2.3 of his nine attempts per game from three at a 29% clip. Iowa’s defense stopped the three, but allowed opponents to outpace its offense in attempts and gave up offensive boards.
North Florida (Dec. 21) — 167th in KenPom
The Ospreys got outpaced too, despite its 75.3 PPG. The Ospreys 299th-ranked defense led to a -1.4 scoring differential for the team. Their 536 turnovers ranked among the worst in the NCAA.
Noah Horchler, their leading scorer, transferred to Providence. Wajid Aminu — younger brother of new Orlando Magic Al-Farouq Aminu — assumes the lead after an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist and two-block per game season.
Syracuse’s chief concern is that while a North Florida could compare favorably to East Washington and Morehead State from last season, these teams could regress. Even Niagara, 315th in KenPom last year, lost two of its three leading scorers.
Georgetown (Dec. 14) — 100th in KenPom
The Hoyas watched Jessie Govan leap to the NBA Summer League, taking 17 points, seven rebounds, two assists and a block per game on 49/41/76 shooting. Georgetown could become the Orange’s most critical non-conference matchup. SU’s win over Ohio State on the road early last year, despite the Buckeye’s slide far below No. 1 in NET, helped position Syracuse above the bubble before a road win a Duke sealed a March bid.
Patrick Ewing’s squad thrived on offense and featured one of the leakiest defenses in the Big East. Their 79.5 PPG ranked 36th, a hair above their 78.1 PPG allowed. They ranked 25th in assists, rebounded inside the top-100 and shot an average (35%) clip from three that held them up as the top offense in Big East play. On D, opponents unloaded on them from three, grabbed offensive boards and produced masses of shot attempts.
Hope could emerge from James Akinjo, the Big East Freshman of the Year, who led GU in defensive box plus-minus (+4.3). That anchored the 323rd-ranked NCAA defense in terms of PPG.
NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 27-29)
Oklahoma State (No. 83) returns its three leading scorers after a 12-20 year in the Big 12. They ranked sub-200 in everything offensively, with a -3.4 net scoring rating per game. This is one of the few teams that projects to improve on Syracuse’s schedule. Lindy Waters and Thomas Dziagwa shot 42%+ from three. Yor Anei blocked 2.1 shots per game.
Ole Miss (50th) shot an elite 78% from the free-throw line in limited trips. They scored 75 PPG and allowed 71. Terence Davis departed as their second-leading scorer with six rebounds, three assists and a steal per game. Penn State (#43) courted a top-100 defense, while ranking sub-200 in most offensive categories. PSU shot 32% from three and lost its third-leading scorer Josh Reaves. The Orange will play one of those two in Brooklyn.
The Orange’s opponents averaged a 132.92 KenPom ranking last year, comparing favorably to SU’s 124.0 from 2018-19’s non-conference. Veteran departures across the board likely sway that in the negative direction, unless those teams have anti-2019-Syracuse syndrome.
SU is hoping for some of that too after starting 9-4 last year. Despite returning its entire starting five with a dose of Elijah Hughes, the Orange dropped games to UConn, Oregon and Old Dominion that didn’t become particularly good losses. Cornell played them within seven, and it took Tyus Battle heroics at the buzzer to avoid the baggage of a Georgetown home loss.
An 11-game non-conference puts Syracuse below other Power Five schools like Arizona (13) and Kansas (12). The Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 all play 18-game conference schedules, while the ACC and Big Ten play 20 this year. Both the Pac-12 and Big East will move to 20 in 2020-21, however.
Only Syracuse, North Carolina, Duke, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Florida State and Notre Dame have scheduled their 11 to date. Syracuse (132.9) ranks second to UNC (97.5) and just ahead of Duke (136.8) in average KenPom ranking last season across their pre-ACC schedule.
That’s an important reminder that while this schedule may be worse than last year’s, it’s all relative after a bad year for college basketball from a depth of quality teams perspective. The Orange’s success in ACC play becomes a greater factor now, with road games and all.
The non-conference slate, at its worst, could still be valuable to prepare the roster for the grueling task of stealing two marquee, or road, victories.