By Michael McAllister
Has this been Syracuse's best defense under head coach Jim Boeheim? It's hard to argue otherwise. Yes the defense two years ago was very good. As it has been many other times in his tenure. Some have argued that maybe Syracuse should utilize man-to-man defense, or the press more often. However, the statistics may suggest otherwise when you break them down.
A defense's first job is to prevent the other team from scoring at its base level. All defenses, regardless of how complex, start with that as their first goal. Syracuse holds teams to 60.0 points per game on average this season. Some may argue that is largely because of the non-conference schedule. However, Syracuse gave up only 59.0 points per game in the non-conference, and 60.8 points per game in conference. So the increase is not very dramatic.
But some of the scoring can be determined by how teams play against you. For example, the strategy teams have utilized to try to beat Syracuse is slow the game down and limit possessions. That strategy would lend itself to lower scoring games. So the next step is to evaluate how teams shoot against Syracuse. Regardless of how much they score due to the style of play, Syracuse's defense should still be holding teams to a low field goal percentage. That is in fact the case. Overall, Syracuse is holding teams to 38.5% shooting. That includes 38.2% in non-conference play, and 38.7% in conference. That is stifling defense. In fact, only two opponents all season have shot over 50% against the Orange (North Carolina State and Notre Dame). Syracuse's field-goal percentage defense ranks 12th in the country.
Another strategy utilized to try to beat the Syracuse zone is the three-point shot. Shooting over the top of the zone can cause the zone to extend, opening up gaps inside. Overall, teams are shooting 31.1% from beyond the arc against the Orange. In non-conference play, teams shot 31.9%, while that number has fallen to 30.3% during conference games.
The other thing the Syracuse zone does well is force turnovers. Syracuse is averaging 9.9 steals per game on the season, good for third in the country (behind East Tennessee State and VCU). However, that number has gone down in conference play to 8.9 from 11.1. So the Orange are getting fewer steals per game, but that also is due in part to fewer possessions, and teams being more comfortable in the zone. The 8.9 steals per game in conference would be good enough for 11th in the country. Interestingly, when you break the steals down further, Syracuse is first in the country in two steal categories. The first is steals per turnover (1.0). This measures how many steals Syracuse gets vs. how many times they turn it over. They are also first in the country in steals per personal foul (0.7). This stat shows while Syracuse is very good at forcing turnovers and steals, they do so without fouling a lot.
The Orange block 7.2 shots per game, also third in the country (behind Kentucky and St. Joseph's). Blocks have actually increased in conference play, from 7.0 to 7.4. The Orange are also third in the country in blocks per personal foul (0.5). Once again, Syracuse is very good at intense, turnover creating defense without a lot of fouls.
Of the 29 games Syracuse has played, only three have scored more points than their average (Albany, Providence, and St. John's). Only three teams have shot a higher field-goal percentage than their average (North Carolina State, Providence, and Notre Dame). Only one team both scored more and shot a higher percentage than their average in the same game (Providence). In the 29 games, Syracuse has held their opponent to a lower shooting percentage and fewer points than their average 25 times.
The last, and maybe most impressive stat for Syracuse is turnover margin. Yes they're great at forcing 17.2 turnovers per game (12th in the country). But they also don't turn it over much themselves (10.5, 8th in the country). The margin between turnovers forced and times they turn it over themselves is 6.7, the best in the country. This shows they are efficient with the basketball, value possessions more than their opponents, and limit scoring opportunities for the other team.
With the big guards at the top of the zone, the long wings and Fab Melo in the center, it's no wonder the Orange defense has been so good this year. It's because of the defense that Syracuse has had at least a 14-0 run in 21 of their 29 games this season. The stereotype seems to be that when a basketball team is more defensive minded they aren't a very good team. But remember, Butler made two straight national championship games by playing great defense despite not being great offensively. Duke has always won with great defensive teams. This Syracuse defense is absolutely championship caliber.