This Syracuse team is not perfect. Point guard play has been inconsistent, although trending in the right direction. The bigs barely contribute offensively. Free throw shooting has been abysmal. Three point shooting hasn’t improved as much as we thought it would by adding Buddy Boeheim and Elijah Hughes. And Syracuse still gives up an alarming number of offensive rebounds. Only seven teams in the NCAA tournament field have a worse rebounding percentage than Syracuse (48.4%).
In the first round SU draws Baylor, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in country. They’re a team that plays a 1-3-1 zone on 40% of defensive possessions. The Orange have struggled mightily against zone. Syracuse is in the bottom third of the country in points per possession against zone defenses (17th percentile), likely due to its unimpressive 33% clip from beyond the arc this season.
Some things bode well for the Orange, such as their experience, overall defense and turnover margins. But none of that fully cancels out the flaws with this team. The only thing that can achieve that is an individual. If Syracuse makes a run past Baylor and Gonzaga, it’s going to be a product of a Tyus Battle takeover.
This is basketball. It’s a unique sport because not even perfect defense stands a chance against perfect offense. And when a scorer as talented as Battle gets into a trance, oftentimes there’s nothing the defense can do. The NCAA tournament has lent itself to magical scoring rampages by upperclassman guards. The most obvious example is Shabazz Napier, who led UConn to a national title in 2014. He was an upperclassman guard projected in the early second round and the Huskies were an 8 seed. Sound familiar?
Battle has shown the capacity to take matters into his own hand. With a mean mug plastered on his face, the junior took 28 shots against No. 1 Duke on Jan. 14, and cashed in for 32 points in the SU upset. At North Carolina, Battle had his second-best performance of the season, scoring 29. It says something about Tyus that he bites down and plays his best games when Syracuse is up against the odds. He doesn’t shrink in big moments. He rises to the occasion, displaying Kobe Bryant-like killer instinct.
The Orange are a team with plenty of holes. None of that will matter if Tyus Battle goes berserk. He just might do it.