The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team went on a late season run to barely sneak into the NCAA tournament, which undoubtedly upset a lot of people. We may apologize later, but for now let’s ask, “How did we get here?”
The Syracuse team that played in January is a lot different than the one that played in February. In particular, the Orange’s 3-1 March record was just enough for SU to avoid a play-in game.
So how did Syracuse improve in February and March, and what can the Orange do to continue that momentum in the NCAA tournament? Well, Shot Quality (@Shot_Quality on Twitter) showcased some key statistics that lead to a higher chance of winning games. A lot of these stats correlate to the Orange’s recent surge. Equally, those same stats serve as a usual blueprint for success in the NCAA tournament. Take a look here:
Updated Keys to Winning— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) March 15, 2021
A reminder of what leads to winning as you fill out your bracket!
All based on this season’s data! pic.twitter.com/rvnnM9HlVL
Now it’s hard to accurately quantify some of the above with traditional statistics, but the dreaded “eye test” is a powerful tool. Watching Syracuse basketball closely shows that the Orange has improved in at least some of these areas to get wins. While there are six stats here, they can be boiled down to a few categories:
Turnovers and Transition
Fortunately for Syracuse fans, Syracuse isn’t a team that turns the ball over often. In fact, from the start January onwards, the Orange only turn the ball over 10.2 times per game. So ball security should be too much of a worrying factor, but for opponents it might be. Syracuse has forced teams to 20 turnovers or more four times this year. From February onwards, the Orange have won eight of ten turnover battles against opponents.
This leads to the transition opportunities that Syracuse has started to take more advantage of, especially Buddy Boeheim. Lately, as the Orange grab a steal, Boeheim lurks to the wing and stays there waiting for a pass, which leads to the open threes that Shot Quality gets to as well. The Syracuse fast break has improved in its shot quality, not just its frequency as well, which is leading to some much needed easy points
The Nate Oats approach
When Nate Oats isn’t questioning Coach K comments, he’s transitioning the college game to reflect the changes that are happening in the NBA. A look at Alabama’s shot charts show that the Crimson Tide exclusively take shots from three or at the rim. That offensive approach has gotten Alabama to the No.5 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and the highest ranked No. 2 seed in the bracket.
Shot Quality’s numbers back that approach up as going to the rim and forcing fouls leads to wins as well as taking open threes. Oats doesn’t want his team to take mid-range shots, and that reflects in Shot Quality’s projections, as teams that tend to take more mid-range shots falter.
How does this apply to Syracuse? An improved aggressiveness at the rim is something that we’ve been clamoring for from the Orange since January. We’re starting to see more of that with Boeheim putting the ball on the floor and driving to the basket with efficiency. Quincy Guerrier is starting to find his groove again by forcing more and-one opportunities underneath the basket. The Orange are a highly efficient team at the rim, but they didn’t take too many shots there to begin the season. That number is slowly growing.
It’s no secret that open threes are good, but what killed Syracuse in January was taking contested threes. The Orange are now picking up the assist numbers which leads to the open threes that Boeheim, Joe Girard, and Alan Griffin feast on. Boeheim in particular is finding himself open for all kinds of wing threes, which has led to his March surge.
The mid-range shot is something that the Syracuse guards, particularly Girard and Griffin, love to pop. Unfortunately, that’s a natural part of their game that they want to take advantage of. Subbing both of them out for Kadary Richmond and Robert Braswell respectively helps limit Syracuse’s tendency to take mid-range shots, which in turn leads the Orange to look for more high-percentage opportunities.
Sharing is caring
The other reason why taking Girard and Griffin out of the game is sometimes beneficial is because of their tendency to isolate with the ball. Shot Quality’s stats show that the more isolation plays a team runs, the less likely they win the game. The Orange don’t have a superstar player like Cade Cunningham that can take over a game with those isolation plays.
Instead, by taking Girard and Griffin out of the game, Syracuse is forced to pass around and either get the ball underneath the basket, which can lead to fouls and free throws, or find an open guy for three. Syracuse’s offensive spike has come from removing guys from the floor that want to isolate and play hero ball.
There are many reasons for why Syracuse is peaking at the right time for the NCAA tournament. Following some of these trends will only help the Orange make an underdog run to championship weekend.