Let's Get Frantic: Syracuse

By Patrick Vint on December 3, 2019 at 3:00 pm
Iowa will feel right at home with a crowd like that
© Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
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IOWA (5-2) VS. SYRACUSE (4-3)

DATE: December 3, 2019
TIME: 6:00 p.m. CT
LOCATION: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, New York
TV: ESPN2
RADIO: Learfield Sports
STREAMING: WatchESPN
LINE: Syracuse -4
KENPOM: Syracuse -3 (Iowa 39% win probability)

Iowa basketball makes its first appearance on the ESPN family of networks Tuesday night for its usually-annual clash with an ACC foe as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.  This year, instead of some team that's usually better at football (Virginia Tech, Clemson) or math (Georgia Tech), Iowa draws an honest-to-God basketball school, the Syracuse Orange.

For the 323rd consecutive year, Syracuse is coached by Jim Boeheim.  Dude was supposed to retire a decade ago, and yet here he his, 75 years old, 43rd season at the Cuse, still 2-3 zonin' people to death.  If you add back the 101 wins he had to vacate due to the use of ineligible players from 2004-07 and 2010-12, he's well over 1,000 wins for his career.  And the fact that the guy can vacate 101 wins and still have a job is a testament to how ingrained Boeheim is in the fabric of that university.

Anyway, it's Syracuse, which means it's a 2-3 zone, which means Iowa will need ball movement and three-point shooting to win.  Kenpom identifies two 'style components' on defense: The percentage of field goal attempts that come from behind the three-point arc, and the ratio of assists per made field goal.  The first shows how perimeter-oriented a team makes its opponents; the latter shows how many shots are created off the pass rather than the dribble.  Here are Syracuse's ranks in each category over the decade (the higher the rank, the more three-point shots/assists):

YEAR 3PA/FGA A/FGM
2010-11 38.8 (320) 63.3 (334)
2011-12 36.2 (289) 62.5 (331)
2012-13 40.3 (333) 67.6 (345)
2013-14 40.5 (343) 63.9 (349)
2014-15 37.4 (277) 65.8 (347)
2015-16 39.7 (309) 65.6 (349)
2016-17 42.8 (328) 67.2 (351)
2017-18 44.5 (338) 73.8 (351)
2018-19 48.1 (347) 67.8 (352)
2019-20 50.8 (351) 68.1 (353)

The truly great recent Boeheim teams -- The 2013-14 team that went undefeated until mid-February, the 30-win 2012-13 team before that, the 2011-12 team that only lost one game in the regular season -- all translated that vaunted 2-3 zone into a stifling, top-20-level defense that forced opponents to grind out possessions and work toward low-percentage outside shots.  Syracuse would clog the middle, challenge shooters and jump passing lanes in the interim, jacking up block and steal rates and driving down three-point shooting percentages in the process.  If you were going to win, you'd have to rain hell from above with a hand in your face.

This season is no exception: So far, opponents are taking more than half of their field goal attempts from behind the arc, a new record for Syracuse.  More than two in three made shots come from assists.  The average defensive possession is over 18 seconds, an eternity in today's game.  And opponents are shooting just 27% from three on Syracuse, and at a 43.7% effective rate overall.  Block rate (15.6% of attempts are getting blocked) is high, steal rate (11.5% of possessions end in a steal) are respectable. 

And yet Syracuse's defense is a somewhat-pedestrian 44th nationally, giving up 0.912 points per possession.  It's only the seventh-best defense in the ACC so far this year.  The answers are pretty simple: Syracuse is putting players on the free throw line far more often this season than it did in the glory days, and they're getting murdered on the glass.  One in three opponent shot attempts is rebounded by the opponent, and opponents are shooting a free throw for every third shot attempt (and making 76.6% in the process).  Those are free possessions and free points, two things that are to be guarded against with your life if you're playing for Boeheim.  Throw in an offense that hasn't quite found its footing (1.044 points per possession, 81st nationally), and you can understand how the Cuse are 4-3 with blowout losses to Oklahoma State and Penn State in Brooklyn last week.

The 2-3 requires length on the back line, and Syracuse certainly has it.  Junior forwards Marek Dolezaj (6'10", 185, 8.4 ppg/5.6 rpg)  and Bourama Sidibe (6'10", 210, 6.3 ppg/6.4 rpg) don't bring much in size or offensive production, but their length makes them integral to Boeheim's age-old strategy.  They're joined on the back line by 6'6" junior forward Elijah Hughes (19.0/4.4/4.3), who leads the team in scoring, is fourth in rebounding and second in assists.  Hughes is also Syracuse's most consistent perimeter threat, canning 23/57 (40.4%) from three.  The frontcourt includes freshman point guard Joseph Girard (6'1", 180, 10.1 ppg/4.9 apg) and Boeheim's son, Buddy Boeheim (6'6", 195, 13.4 ppg).  It's pretty much classic Syracuse: Length everywhere but the point, scoring primarily from the backcourt, and as many minutes going to the starting five as possible.

This has the makings of Iowa's recent football game with Nebraska, only in reverse: Iowa's sometimes-questionable defense against Syracuse's not-really-great-at-anything offense as the undercard, with Fran McCaffery's vaunted offense against that zone.  McCaffery has already announced that Jordan Bohannon will start, and that Iowa will surround Luka Garza with shooters -- Bohannon, Fredrick, McCaffery and Weiskamp -- to beat the zone.  This team is already among the most assist-happy in the country, and certainly knows how to get to the line.  If Iowa can make open shots from the outside, they stand a good chance of winning in upstate New York Tuesday night.

But this is Boeheim, at the Carrier Dome, trying to avoid a fourth loss in the first eight games.  Even if this isn't vintage Syracuse, it's still Syracuse.  Getting those shots, and then making them, against that zone and that crowd and that coach won't be so simple.

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