While the Virginia Cavaliers were thoroughly dominating the Hokies on Wednesday, Syracuse was struggling to knock off NC State in overtime. In the road game against a struggling NC State team, the Orange scored 1.35 points per possession to the Wolfpack’s 1.26, for a final score of 100-93 in 74 possessions. Whether by Virginia’s standards or not, basically nobody played any defense in that game.
That isn’t going to be the case in the matchup this weekend. If Syracuse doesn’t want to play defense, that would be fine. But Tony Bennett’s defenses do not take games off. Syracuse’s defense hasn’t just taken off a game here and there, they’ve been absent for much of the season. They currently rank 106th in the nation in defensive efficiency. The last time they held a team under 1 point per possession was mid-January, against Boston College. The last time they held a good team under that figure was a month ago against Miami.
This Syracuse team, 14-9 and 6-4 in the ACC, has lost to BC (Kenpom #144), lost to UCONN (109) and lost to St John’s (95). Of course, they’ve also beaten Miami (44), Wake Forest (34) and FSU (17). The latest bracketology reports do not have the Orange included. That said, there is still much basketball to be played and Syracuse undoubtedly has the talent to play themselves in.
That talent begins with Tyler Lydon, a projected first round pick in this year’s NBA draft. Lydon is a stretch-4, who shoots 44% from 3 point range and also leads the team with almost 8 rebounds per game. He’s also a very good shot blocker, averaging almost 1.5 blocks per game. At 6’9” 223, Lydon is a pretty typical Syracuse forward — tall and lanky. He’s not weak, but he can be pushed around inside by bigger players. He’s mostly a perimeter player, so that isn’t such a big when he’s on offense. Syracuse’s zone defense negates some of those problems, as he’s rarely tasked with covering an interior player.
Though Lydon is the best player on the team, he’s only 2nd in scoring, at just over 14 points per game. The leading scorer is senior Andrew White. White began his career at Kansas, and then transferred to Nebraska after 2 seasons and then to Syracuse as a graduate transfer. He’s averaging 17 points, 4 rebounds, and almost 2 steals per game. He’s 6’7” 210, but like Lydon, is almost exclusively a perimeter player. He shoots just over 40% from 3 and is in the top 20 in 3 point attempts (and is #1 among Power 5 teams). White is too good a player, though, to just stand outside and shoot 3s. White almost never comes off the floor and is averaging over 40 minutes per game in his past 5 (because of OT).
The third member of the Syracuse back three is a bit more fluid than the two forward positions. At the season’s outset, senior DaJuan Coleman was starting in the middle. But he’s been dealing with injury problems on and off all year, and he’s only played in two of the past 10 games. In his stead, freshman Taurean Thompson has been starting. Thompson is pretty raw, but has held up well so far. He’s proven capable of knocking down the mid-range jumper, but he doesn’t have much offensive skill. He’s a below average rebounder for a guy with his size and athleticism. He is, however, a good defender and shot blocker. And when Coleman isn't playing and Thompson gets a break, Jim Boeheim goes to Tyler Roberson. Roberson is a senior who has been a productive player for Syracuse in the past. He averaged 8 and 8 last year, but is down to 6 and 5 because of diminished minutes. He’s probably the second best rebounder on the team (behind Coleman) and is quite possibly the best defender.
Like White, the Orange PG is a double-transfer. John Gillon began his career at Arkansas-Little Rock before transferring to Colorado State for 2 years. He’s now at Syracuse as a graduate transfer. Gillon is shooting the 3 a career best 43%, but he’s really not a scorer. He’s a pass-first PG, though he will look for his shot if he’s given a chance. He’s just 6’0” 178, which hurts the zone. Behind Gillon is sophomore Frank Howard. At 6’5” 205, he’s a bigger presence in the zone. But he’s struggled offensively, shooting just 34% from the field. He does average 4.5 assists per game, but much of that came early in the season. His playing time has suffered in ACC play.
The other member of the front of the 2-3 zone is freshman Tyus Battle. Battle is a bit like Andrew White. He’s 6’6” 205, he’s athletic, and he spends far too much time standing around the perimeter shooting 3s. He’s taken nearly 60% of his shots from behind the arc, making 39% of them. Battle will also drop down to the back line at times, with both Howard and Gillon in the backcourt. Obviously, that hurts the team's size, but gives them a lot of quickness.
As a team, the Orange are awfully reliant on the 3. They take nearly 40% of their shots from behind the arc and rank 22nd in the nation in 3 point shooting. The Hoos are 20th in the nation in 3 point shooting, but take just over 30% of their shots from the arc.
As is often the case with zone defenses, the Orange struggle on the defensive glass. Because no defender has a man to guard, offensive players can get lost and then aren’t picked up once a shot is released. Syracuse has never been great at preventing offensive rebounds, but they are very bad this year. Syracuse opponents are rebounding roughly 35% of their own misses. The Hoos aren’t as good on the offensive boards as they have been in recent years, due to the departure of both Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. But Isaiah Wilkins, Jared Reuter and Jack Salt are proficient on the offensive glass. Because of way Reuter operates in the paint, he could be a useful weapon against the zone. He’s great on the offensive glass, and he is also a decent passer from the lane. He could be used in the high post, although I expect that to be Isaiah’s domain for most of this game.
Jim Boeheim has had to use a deeper rotation than he is used to, in part because of injuries, but mostly because of inexperience. Between the freshmen and the transfers, there has been a growth curve for this team. A team that is perennially in the top 20 in defense is outside the top 100. As evidenced by the NC State, improvement doesn’t seem to be coming all that quickly. However, Syracuse is still dangerous because of their outside shooting and their overall talent level.
This will be a tough game for the Hoos because of the hostile environment and because of the memories from last year. But most of all, this is a tough game because Syracuse is a better team than their record indicates.