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Jim Boeheim on Syracuse zone: ‘Our defense has been horrendous’

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The hallmark of the Syracuse basketball program has devolved into its Achilles’ heel.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team is off to a 7-6 start through its first 13 games, its worst mark since the 1969-70 season, which predates the Jim Boeheim era.

Part of that middling record is due to Syracuse’s difficult non-conference schedule to be sure. The Orange currently have a strength of schedule (SOS) of 50. But more than anything else, the defense hasn’t quite been up to standard this season — or in the past three, broadly speaking. As part of a shift to a more modern offensive focus, Syracuse hasn’t posted a top 75 defense since the 2018-19 season.

Syracuse currently has a KenPom defensive efficiency rating of 102.1, which ranks No. 188 in the country. That qualifies as the program’s worst defensive ranking in the KenPom era (since 2001-02). The next lowest defensive ranking for the Orange was No. 119 in 2016-17. So once again, it was the defense that lost Syracuse its ACC home opener against Virginia, which gave the players and coaches more film study before practice.

“We played horrible on defense. We usually show them five or six really bad defensive clips. We have 14 without trying of just guys not playing their position,” Jim Boeheim said on Monday’s ACC Coaches Zoom call.

In that meeting last Saturday, Syracuse allowed a modest Virginia offense to shoot 30-57 (52.6%) from the floor, including 17-27 (63.0%) shooting in the second half. Virginia’s 74 points tied its highest point total of the season against any opponent not named Fairleigh Dickinson.

“When you score 69 points against Virginia then you should be able to win the game. They give up 50. Our defense was a disgrace. That’s me, I’m the coach. I’m responsible for that. Seven guys made a bad defensive mistake. A couple guys made multiple defensive mistakes. You can’t win games that way. We’ve already demonstrated that. Our offense is more than good enough. Our defense has been horrendous,” Boeheim emphasized.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 07 Jimmy V Classic - Syracuse v Villanova Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2-3 zone has been the trademark of the Syracuse program under Boeheim, but the 46-year head coach has gone to a 1-1-3 zone at various points this season with hopes to keep the ball out of the high-post. Too often opponents have been able to get the ball in the middle where teams have a plethora of options at its disposal. More recently, teams have been able to beat either defense without much resistance.

“It’s 100% responsible for our record,” Boeheim continued. “We’ve done most everything I know to fix it. We’re going to keep trying to fix it. But at the end of the day we need to play better on the defensive end.”

The Syracuse zone has players in “really bad position” defensively, Boeheim says, and it’s not for a lack of effort. The coaching staff has emphasized rebounding to the players, but at this point of the season the defense is making too many errors to win games.

Syracuse’s roster construction has allowed for more shooting but at the cost of building a team that’s capable of playing defense at a high level. That onus isn’t on the players, so the coaching staff will have to find a way to put together a formidable defense with the current roster that’s just good enough so the offense can wins games.

Net net, the Syracuse defense needs to get better.

“There’s no excuse at this stage of the season,” Boeheim said, “to make the defensive mistakes we’re making.”

High-level scorers

Syracuse hits the road to Coral Gables on Wednesday to take on Miami, a team it most closely resembles in terms of efficiency. The Hurricanes are off to its best start in league play (3-0) since 2012-13 when it won the ACC title.

Miami’s defense is slightly worse than Syracuse’s, giving up 102.7 points per every 100 possession. On the other side of the ball, Miami boasts a top-25 offense with dynamic perimeter threats in Isaiah Wong, Kam McGusty and Charlie Moore.

Said Boeheim, “They’re playing really well and they’re scoring at a very high level. Those guys, they’re all good players. All their perimeter guys are capable of going for 20, 25 every night.”

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