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Syracuse men’s basketball smartly moving the offense inside the arc

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Despite thinking the analytics are useless when looking at the zone, Jim Boeheim’s made offensive adjustments of late that agree with the statheads

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

For anyone that’s been hanging around the blog since the start of this season (hell, maybe even last season), you’ve probably seen the TNIAAM staff bemoan the volume of three-point shots for a Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team that’s not super accurate from outside. Well, whether Jim Boeheim’s a reader or not, it seems he’s been making adjustments to recent gameplans by de-emphasizing the three. And it’s worked of late, and should be a bigger part of the offense for the remainder of the year.

On the season, Syracuse is hitting just 32.5% of shots from outside — “good” for 232nd in the country. SU scores 30% of its points on three-point shots (193rd in the country, per KenPom), while 50.6% come from twos and 19.4% come from free throws. None of those are overwhelming percentages. But when we factor in SU hitting more than 51% of twos — AND being a top-10 free throw team at 79.1% — it would seemingly behoove the Orange to keep driving the lane. As noted, they have lately.

Syracuse attempted just 11 three-pointers against Boston College, making five of them — a strong clip, but also one against a very poor defense. They also got to the line 23 times, making 18 shots there, and it ultimately made most of the difference in a tight win.

Take a look at every game so far in 2020-21 for Syracuse. I’ve included three-pointers attempted, three-point percentage, free throws attempted and free throw percentage for each result.

While you can’t find causation above, given the small sample size and various exceptions, there’s certainly some easy patterns to notice. Syracuse has certainly been decreasing its three-point tries over the course of the season, which is good. But whether or not they’ve been able to get to the line has seemed to dictate a lot of results. That’s because if they’re getting to the line, it’s more likely they’re driving the lane. And if they’re driving the lane, they’re also more likely to be taking more efficient shots — so, scoring more points (the whole point of the game, as you’re aware).

Here’s another look at Syracuse’s shooting, via CBB Analytics.

Just a quick glance at this tells you that letting if fly from three is not the move for this year’s Orange, and the best path to victory is working it inside where they’re hitting 77.3% at the rim (12% above the average in D1). Of course, they’re also hitting just 43% of their shots elsewhere in the paint. So if a defense can stop them from getting to the hoop, there’s a decent chance SU isn’t coming away with points.

This isn’t to say abandon the three-point shot entirely (if the Orange use it with some restraint — like they did vs. BC on Saturday — there are pluses there). But if you’re hitting at that high a rate at the rim AND are one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country, it would stand to reason that you’d be better off driving the lane.

While not a wholesale shift, as indicated by how three-point and free throw attempts look from game to game, there does seem to be some sort of emphasis on moving the offense inside the arc, where this team is far more efficient.

Now, if SU really wants to unlock something with this offense, we’ll see adjusted shot distribution as well. If the offense does its best work at the rim and the free throw line, then more shots should probably go to the big men like Quincy Guerrier and Marek Dolezaj — the two most efficient offensive players on the team, per KenPom, yet combined for just 28% of the Orange’s shots vs. BC. Working the ball inside to those players more also collapses opposing defenses, and creates more open threes when they’re taken. Overall, sounds like a win-win for Syracuse as they start the stretch run here.