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Jim Boeheim’s right about the defense, but is there any solution?

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To zone, or not to zone

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-2021 Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season is hanging precariously in the balance in mid-January. While the Orange will look to stop a two-game slide when they return home to host the Miami Hurricanes there is growing concern about this roster’s ability to defend. That concern is led by the man in charge, Jim Boeheim who said this on Saturday.

“Our defense was probably the worst I’ve seen it since I’ve been here,” Boeheim said. “Sixty-four points? Yeah, that’s a lot of points.”

It is indeed a lot of points but the Syracuse defense hasn’t been good for the last year and a half so this shouldn’t be that surprising. The Orange returned a poor defense and then have watched as starting center Bourama Sidibe went down with injury in the first game forcing Marek Dolezaj to man the middle. With the under-sized Dolezaj over-matched inside and Sidibe unlikely to return where can the Orange turn?

The best defenders on this team are three bench players who’ve offered limited success on the offensive end. Many are calling for Kadary Richmond to take over for a struggling Joe Girard but teams are playing off Richmond and taking away some of the early effectiveness he showed. Robert Braswell had two strong games against Pitt and Georgetown but he played less than 10 minutes in each road game last week. Woody Newton has been limited due to COVID protocols and with athletic big man Frank Anselem also sidelined that Syracuse depth we expected no longer exists.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

So what does Boeheim do? He wants this Syracuse team to run more but when you don’t get stops or turnovers those opportunities are limited. He wants the Orange to shoot a lot of 3s so replacing Girard or Buddy seems unlikely to happen despite more calls for it to occur. The starts and stops have likely impacted conditioning and even though the Orange lost by 20 on Saturday, Boeheim let Buddy (40), Dolezaj (39), and Guerrier (38) play unnecessary minutes. Jesse Edwards got one minute while Jon Bol Ajak didn’t leave the bench. I’m not sure how those players will get ready to contribute if they aren’t going to be utilized in a blowout situation.

Dolezaj has played all but six minutes in the last four games. He’s been beaten-up and bloodied and doesn’t appear to be getting any help, but there’s an option that Boeheim shouldn’t be reluctant to try....he could change defenses in a couple of different ways.

Now this isn’t a call to go man-to-man for forty minutes because that would make things worse. I can’t think of an ACC backcourt that Buddy and Joe would be able to defend for a game but with teams preparing for the zone Jim should throw some different wrinkles at them. The full-court press with the starters is just going to lead to more fatigue so why not try and steal a two to three minute stretch in the first half with Richmond, Braswell and Newton mixed in. All three bring length and athleticism and can create some turnovers and that transition Boeheim craves.

When the starters are in the game, it is worth trying a switch of Buddy and Alan Griffin when Girard is in the game. We’ve heard plenty about Griffin’s struggles on the wing but pairing him with Girard can help the top of the zone deny the high-post entry which is killing the Orange. Putting Buddy on the backline on Griffin’s side means Buddy won’t have to cheat as far out on the wing and Griffin’s activity on the glass could help a team which isn’t getting those long rebounds.

Let’s be clear, neither suggestion is going to turn this squad into one of the better defensive teams. The goal is to try and do enough to break the comfort of opponents who in the last four games have scored 152 first-half points and 189 second-half points in the last four games. This shows that opponents are making adjustments and figuring out how to attack the Orange so instead of being passive it’s time for Syracuse to show a couple different tweaks to counter-punch. At this point doing the same thing and expecting different results is not much of a strategy.