Blueprint To Beat Undefeated Syracuse

Posted by zhayes9 on January 19th, 2012

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Near the tail end of Monday’s Baylor-Kansas game, Dick Vitale, ESPN’s master of hyperbole, predicted that Syracuse would not lose once during the regular season. The odds of becoming the first team to accomplish that feat since the Jameer Nelson/Delonte West-led St. Joseph’s juggernaut of 2004 is slim. In fact, Ken Pomeroy’s projections grant the Orange only a 13.1% chance of running the table.

Still, the Big East conference doesn’t feature nearly as many elite teams as in previous seasons. Potential slip-ups at Notre Dame and Cincinnati are approaching, while visits to ranked teams Louisville and Connecticut remain. All in all, though, the road is as navigable a team can ask for in the gauntlet of conference play.

The Syracuse hype goes deeper than their unblemished record. Aside from a near upset against Stanford, their level of performance from opening night to today has been extraordinary.  In their first 20 games, Syracuse’s margin of victory is a staggering 19.7 points per contest. They lead the nation in steals and can deliver a 14-0 spurt as quickly as any team in the country with their high-flying transition game. Their depth is at the point where most believe members #6 through #10 in their rotation would be a team capable of making the NCAA Tournament.

Still, even the most menacing teams of the last few years are vulnerable to a poor 40-minute output. Illinois’ loaded 2005 squad fell in their season finale to unranked Ohio State and the Hansbrough/Lawson Tar Heels were stunned by Boston College at the Dean Dome, just to name a few. These are college kids, not robots. But how specifically can a Notre Dame or Cincinnati or Louisville knock off this seemingly unstoppable machine? Here are eight essentials to dethroning what may be Jim Boeheim’s best team in 34 years at the helm:

1. Keep the game in the halfcourt

Any hope of knocking off Syracuse begins and ends with limiting the Orange transition game. Boeheim has instructed his guards at the top of their 2-3 zone to always be active in the passing lanes in order to get deflections and race the other way. Not even North Carolina, the near-unanimous preseason number one and a team averaging 85 points per game, is as proficient in transition opportunities as this Syracuse unit. It’s no coincidence that two of their more competitive games- against Virginia Tech at MSG and the recent home victory over Pittsburgh – were two of the three lowest possession contests of the season. Pitt was able to limit the Orange to just 62 possessions despite a 13-0 run to begin the game and stayed within striking distance.

2. Make transition defense a priority

Just like the Wes Johnson/Andy Rautins-led Syracuse outfit of two years ago, the Orange run at every possible opportunity. Their triumvirate of guards – Jardine, Triche and Waiters – is absolutely lethal in full-court mode. If you make Syracuse work for open looks in the halfcourt, they’re much more vulnerable to defeat. Two possible chinks in the armor for the Orange are three-point shooting and ability to get to the free throw line. Syracuse shoots a mediocre 36% from three as a team and ranks 279th in Division-1 in free throw rate. If a future opponent can keep their guards in the halfcourt and force them into contested jump shots, the odds of an upset dramatically increase. Make or miss, Notre Dame’s guards should make it a priority to sprint back after every shot goes up on Saturday.

3. Employ a threat in the middle of their 2-3 zone

One of the areas where the Syracuse zone is susceptible to a breakdown is near the free throw line. The zone can be carved up by employing a player in that soft spot who can face-up, deliver a pass to a cutter along the baseline or pose a mid-range shooting threat. Of course, only a handful of teams boast a player with that type of skill set. Perusing their schedule, look out for Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, West Virginia’s Kevin Jones and even Connecticut’s Ryan Olander as players who can flash into the free throw line area and cause problems.

4. Don’t be afraid to foul

I’m noticing a trend with Jim Boeheim’s recruiting habits: he doesn’t particularly care about free-throw shooting ability. The large majority of recent Syracuse squads have ranked in the bottom half of college basketball in team free throw percentage. Fortunately for Boeheim, this team’s 70.9% mark from the charity stripe is a dramatic uptick from recent years, but it still ranks below the top 100 in the nation. Joseph, Triche and Fair all make over 75% of their attempts, but opposing defenses shouldn’t be afraid to foul Jardine (54%) or Melo (55%) if they’re granted an easy path to the basket. Even role players Christmas, Southerland and Carter-Williams are all under 70% from the season.

5. Tell your forwards to crash the offensive boards

While I’d instruct my guards to always leak out and hopefully limit Syracuse’s high-powered transition game, one area where the 2-3 zone can be exploited is on the defensive boards. In fact, Syracuse ranks a meager 318th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. This is a typical flaw of a zone defense because there’s no specific man designated for each player to box out and it pulls the back line forwards out of prime rebounding position. On Monday, Pitt out-rebounded Syracuse by 12 and challenged the superiorly-talented Orange for 40 minutes. Ample chances for key offensive boards, which at the very least can drain another 35 ticks off the clock and limit possessions, are often available against Syracuse.

6. Dare Scoop Jardine to shoot

By all accounts, Scoop Jardine has had a fantastic senior season. For a point guard, his 64% shooting from inside the arc is incredible. He’s averaging 4.8 assists per game in just over 22 minutes of action. His turnovers have decreased and his spotty decision-making has certainly improved. It’s also easy for a senior who’s seen a drop in playing time to pout and whine; instead, Jardine has embraced a leadership role, even when Boeheim opts for a Triche/Waiters backcourt in crunch time. One discernable flaw for Jardine, though, is his outside shooting. After peaking at 39% from beyond the arc as a sophomore, Jardine has been on a steady decline, sinking just 15 of 47 threes this season at a 32% rate. Whoever is assigned to Jardine should be instructed to sag off of him and dare the senior to chuck up an ill-advised three.

7. Try to coax Fab Melo into early foul trouble

One of the big question marks heading into this season was the play of Melo at the center position after an extremely disappointing freshman campaign. In better condition and playing with renewed confidence, Melo has thrived as a sophomore and is a major reason for Syracuse’s 20-0 start. Still, like any raw big man, he can be prone to foul trouble. If a team can lure Melo into two early fouls and keep him glued on the bench, subs Christmas and Keita simply don’t provide the same rebounding or defensive presence in the middle as Melo, who ranks fifth in the nation in block percentage.

8. Win four-minute intervals

Aside from the Preseason NIT which seems like ages ago, Syracuse hasn’t dealt with a whole lot of on-court adversity. Florida, Marshall, NC State and a few others have been competitive with the Orange, but there was never a moment where Jim Boeheim’s team was really threatened. Trying to handle such a talented team over 40 minutes can seem overly daunting. So much of the college game is mental, which is why I’d simply ask my team to win each four-minute interval. Outplay Syracuse for the first four minutes then start anew after the first TV timeout. Syracuse is going to punch you in the mouth and go on at least one major run over the course of the game. It’s the team that effectively counter-punches and responds to adversity that will be the first to knock off Syracuse.

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12 Responses to “Blueprint To Beat Undefeated Syracuse”

  1. Max Strauss says:

    You posted eight things that one team has to do to beat syracuse… That’s hilarious, I doubt a team can do all of them in one game, but jeez. Who is most likely to beat cuse and complete all of these ”tasks”?

  2. Joe says:

    All 8 points are very valid, but easier said than done!

  3. [...] Blueprint To Beat Undefeated Syracuse « Rush The CourtAny hope of knocking off Syracuse begins and ends with limiting the Orange transition game. Boeheim has instructed his guards at the top of their 2-3 zone to always be active in the passing lanes in order to get deflections and race the other way. It’s no coincidence that two of their more competitive games- against Virginia Tech at MSG and the recent home victory over Pittsburgh – were two of the three lowest possession contests of the season. Pitt was able to limit the Orange to just 62 possessions despite a 13-0 run to begin the game and stayed within striking distance. [...]

  4. Dick says:

    Beating Syracuse is easy. Just score more points than they do. Good luck.

  5. zhayes9 says:

    Didn’t imply a team must perfect all 8 of these tasks to win. My goal was to simply examine some ways that a team can increase their odds of an upset.

    I’d say Cincy is most likely. They’re playing a lot more 4-guard lineups with Wright, Dixon, Kilpatrick and Parker. Can be advantageous against a zone.

  6. BOtskey says:

    Great breakdown. Rebounding is huge because a team can control tempo. If you can’t slow the Orange down, you can’t beat them. However, Syracuse is so good at creating steals and bad passes by extending that zone out on opposing guards while relying on the big men to anchor under the basket.

    I’d be surprised if Syracuse loses any of its remaining regular season games. They’re that good.

  7. kevin says:

    Some of those stats are misleading, for one when SU has been in closer games, they have had some pretty good halfcourt,see the prov gam. the reason it hasnt looked so well as of late, is mainly do to the drop in 3 point shooting percentage, they started out cold in that area but then caught fire, with joseph, triche, southerland, and waiters bringin theyre avg above 40%, but the last 2 games they just havent been dropping,often good open shots that just popout, so that “weakness” might not be there too long. Also I pray that people start saggin jardine watch the game when they have (florida) and he killed them, also he is not as bad a ft shooter as his stats and has been making them of late. Also that marshall game wasnt really as close as the final score if you actually watched it, they were up like 20 with 5 mins left and they just let em shoot 3s the end of the game when the was really no chance. And melos foul trouble had more to do with how bad the refs were in the prov,marqutte, and pitt games then melo, also if the refs were accurate all those games would have been blowouts. MY keys- everyone on SU goes cold(10 are alot of people to be off at once)and have horribly onesided refereeing letting the other team get away with murder and SU get called for everything they do.

  8. zhayes9 says:

    I’d be surprised too Brian. Think about the toughest games left: Cincy takes a lot of threes which can lead to long rebounds and Cuse in transition, Oriakhi/Drummond won’t be comfortable against the zone and Louisville can’t shoot.

    It’s not in DC, but just as far as matchups are concerned, I like Georgetown’s chances as much as anyone.

  9. matt says:

    Play Syracuse zone. If teams insist on playing man, they have too many athletes that can break them down and finish at or above the rim. They aren’t good against a zone.

    The defensive rebounding thing is less about the zone (that’s a silly myth) and more about two things; Kris Joseph being physical and they try to block so many shots. KJ is a great player, but he’s soft. If/when he owns his wing spot rebounding, this team doesn’t struggle at all to rebound. This will become more apparent as Melo improves each game. So KJ has to be tougher. But the bigger part is that they try to block every single shot that goes up. Understandably as they may be the best shot blocking team in the country (if teams shot a higher percentage of inside shots their bpg would go way up). However, these leaves guys out of position to rebound. SU needs to continue to improve in knowing when to just play positionally, make the other team take a tough shot, and then go get the ball.

    UCONN on the road, L’ville on the road (L’ville is nowhere near as good as SU but they are so well coached), Cinci on the road; those are hang up games to be sure. I feel like WVU at home though is what’s gonna derail an undefeated season. Georgetown just doesn’t have the horses in the Dome.

  10. matt says:

    The zone lulls you into jacking threes. If they contest and close out, it’s actually a really hard defense to shoot at. The reason Cinci could struggle is that they don’t have a great option (potentially; I disagree a little about Kirkpatrick) to work in the middle. If you get to shoot inside out threes, you can make them. If you are going to throw it around the perimeter and shoot over guys ranging from 6’2″ to 6’9″, you’re going to be launching contested 25 footers. Those aren’t good shots. The only team on the schedule with somewhat comparable talent is UCONN. UCONN doesn’t have the depth, but they arguably have more high end guys (Lamb and Drummond). If they don’t have Boatright back, I think they’re in trouble (and I think Napier is going to start unraveling this thing). Every other game, SU will have better players, and more of them, than anyone they play (other than Kevin Jones). So it’s going to take another team playing great, and SU having an off night (which is reasonable to assume will happen). Bottom line is that from here out, no one on their schedule can beat SU IF they play well.

  11. Trotter76 says:

    The guards on this team are doing a much better job of sagging to the free throw line from the off-side and then darting back out to defend the 3 than previous years. (And if you watch other teams try the 2-3 it looks pathetically slow in comparison). Dion especially has been doing a great job of double duty against the high post and the 3 pt line. This team is damn good.

  12. Josh says:

    Here is another tip:

    “Go 11 players deep.”

    Then again, Syracuse has snipers off the walk-on bench who can outshoot everyone.

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