Blueprint To Beat Undefeated SyracusePosted 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.