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Hard to imagine fix for Syracuse men’s basketball defense

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This zone is a disaster, one holding back an offense that’s beginning to show enormous potential. Now that Robert Braswell is done for the season, there may be no way to save it.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Joseph Girard III sprinted back into position after staring at Quincy Guerrier losing another rebounding battle in the corner opposite of him. He reached his position first atop the key, underneath the fly ball that eluded the grip of Syracuse Orange defenders for much of what felt like an eternity of crunch time on Saturday against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Nate Laszewski still won the rebound, tipping the ball over Girard’s head to Prentiss Hubb, who funneled a pass to John Mooney for a third-chance layup. Hubb stood over Girard, then stepped over him — Allen Iverson style — only he got caught. Girard converted his technical free throws then lit Notre Dame up with 10 straight points. The Orange still lost 88-87.

Remember, Mooney’s layup still counted before the nearly game-altering technical foul. That 4:35 remained, with Syracuse up 76-72, haunted the weekend Dome crowd. The Orange led by four points three different times in the final five minutes. They repeatedly fell out of position, didn’t box out or even rotate on certain plays to lose those leads. The simplest of blunders plague a stunningly inept Syracuse defense that collapsed during the closing sequence of a critical loss.

Notre Dame (79th), Oklahoma State (55th) and Georgetown (58th) won’t likely qualify as “good” losses, with SU still devoid of a quality win. Whatever fixes may be possible for Syracuse’s defense — ranked 107th (96.9) in KenPom defensive rating — may already be inconsequential to NCAA Tournament chances.

“The forwards, guard and center position. We’re not good in any area right now,” Jim Boeheim said. “We’ve been getting hurt inside and we’re getting hurt on the perimeter.”

Boeheim placed scrutiny on Bourama Sidibe, benching him twice in the second half following a defensive miscue and for his failure to box out Mooney, the conference’s best rebounder with 13.5 per game.

Sidibe has lapses, and while the guards normally receive extra statistical scrutiny in the zone, this year marks the only time this past decade both of Boeheim’s starters are recording negative defensive box plus-minuses. Both only score less than 0.1 points more per possession than they allow, net neutrals. And those other teams finished conference play.

It’s only beginning for this squad, picked apart by the most basic movements. Seven basic swing passes set Notre Dame off on the 11-2 run that forced a sporadic eight-point Orange comeback. Boeheim rotated deep to the right on this play, unable to recover to his zone where Hubb is set up comfortably.

The debate on shooting plays will always be whether Elijah Hughes, Marek Dolezaj and Guerrier bear responsibility as wing defenders. One of the wings gets pressed with checking the back door, as Hughes does on Leszewski. He’s still the only one to contest Hubb. Boeheim never made it back.

The Irish didn’t go back door often. Here, it caused confusion between Hughes and Guerrier. That option still prevents fully stretching out the zone. It comes down to whether Syracuse wants to dare that difficult pass to the back line. Hubb turned the ball over twice in a row trying it in the second half.

“Our forwards have not covered the perimeter well enough,” Boeheim said. “We need to do a better job of helping on the perimeter with out forwards. A lot of the threes that are being taken are in the wing positions, which are forward positions.”

On Hubb’s first significant three of the half, it’s hard to argue that point. A later three showed some of the roaming and floating that gets the top of Syracuse’s zone into trouble.

Girard’s aggressiveness on defense has garnered him 1.6 steals per game and better statistical rating per possession than Boeheim. It also cost Cuse the lead late, as he dove into the high post to attack Dane Goodwin and free Hubb on the wing.

The zone, as currently constructed, isn’t fooling opponents. Dribble penetration kills the Orange, which they rank in the 20th percentile against defensively. Mooney moved to open space on the floor and found his jumper in the second half. Worse, SU stands among the bottom-53 defensive rebounding teams in the country, securing only 68.9% of their stops. That, more than the shooting, has cost SU games like against Penn State.

Sidibe initially loses the rebound to Mooney on this play and got benched for it. Look at Dolezaj on the follow, he’s staring as Goodwin blows by him from behind for a put-back. In a half where the lead changed or the game tied 11 separate times, Notre Dame did so four times on second or third-chance opportunities.

Syracuse led by four with under three minutes remaining when Mooney finally missed a spot-up jumper. All Dolezaj had to do was put a body on Durham here and Hughes would’ve secured the rebound. If all goes the same, Guerrier’s late block on Mooney that landed back in his hands for a layup would’ve tied the game. Instead, it gave the Irish an 86-84 lead.

Perhaps more time for Guerrier will help, since Boeheim doesn’t see the guards being able to contribute more rebounding. To his point, Girard and Boeheim have combined for as many defensive rebounds per game as Frank Howard and Tyus Battle did last season.

“In our defense, the guards are so on the perimeter that they’re not going to rebound very much. They’re getting about the normal rebounds,” he said. “Tyus was 6’6” and very physical and Frank Howard at 6’5” barely got any more rebounds. It’s not a (rebounding) position, in the way we play our defense. The guards are extended most of the time and the rebounding has to come from the inside.”

The zone thrives on feel, instincts and communication these Orange have to build. I won’t go the route many will in response to this issue and scream for man-to-man, especially when Syracuse’s 13 possessions in the press rank them in the 15th percentile. It should be even worse after Girard stood and watched while Goodwin stole position on the boards here. This convinces me that even man wouldn’t solve the Orange’s rebounding woes.

The Orange could use more Howard Washington minutes. He’s allowed 4-of-14 shooting in the zone this year. In nearly six minutes of first-half work, he grabbed a rebound, dished a pair of assists and forced 1-of-3 shooting defensively. He communicates well and could help break up minutes at the top of the zone. Girard and Boeheim’s offensive load combined with 40 minutes can’t help their defense.

Jesse Edwards, with his team-best size, could help the interior on both ends by the end of the year. Boeheim’s been impressed with his practices and, though the minutes are minuscule, he ranks in the 99th percentile allowing 1-of-8 shooting. He’d help on plays like these where Sidibe is slower to react to shooters in the lane.

Robert Braswell’s season ending all but kills the possibility of Hughes playing guard in the conference run. Though Niagara eating up that lineup wasn’t a great sign and Boeheim remained skeptical of Braswell’s rebounding.

There’s no quick fix for a defense that can’t even rotate on swings right now. Iowa watched years of Boeheim’s zone in preparation for their win earlier in the year at the Dome. These teams move to the right spots, find open space and unload heavy amounts of threes over the zone. Without reaction, it won’t get any better on this end but hopefully there’s improvement starting with tonight’s game against the Virginia Tech Hokies.