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Syracuse Can’t Overlook Its Defensive Problems Heading Into Postseason

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The Syracuse offense has become stale lately. Even worse than that last batch of Dome dogs from the concession stand. Coach Jim Boeheim won’t deny that. “We need to get better,” he’s uttered game after the game the last few weeks. One area JB is quick to defend is his defense, the 2-3 zone he’s perfected over 38 years.

“We’re second in the league in defense. We held Georgia Tech to 31 points in the first half, we held Virginia to 27 [in the first half]. I don’t think this a defensive problem.”

Sure, holding opponents to less than 60 points per game looks great in a vacuum. But the zone hasn’t threatened its opponents very much during Syracuse’s last 3 losses. Did Georgia Tech’s offense look like it was on its heels at all on Tuesday? If anything it looked like the more composed unit. Holding a team to 31 points looks alright on paper. But against the Yellow Jackets, SU forced just nine turnovers. Against UVA, just six. Syracuse forces nearly 14 per game and only mustered 15 in two. Trevor Cooney said the defense is lacking intensity.

‚ÄúIt just wasn‚Äôt active. We turned to [the press as well] at times, and early in the season we were able to force teams to make tough decisions and we were able to turn it over. That was when it was active, and it wasn‚Äôt active [against Georgia Tech].”

The Jackets flashed excellent ball movement all night long. The Cavaliers did the same on Saturday. And Syracuse hasn’t been able to force the turnovers it has normally done all season long. Yes, Tech only scored 67 points. But that’s because Head Coach Brian Gregory’s team was consistently working the shot clock down to five or 10 seconds. The Yellow Jackets looked poised and in total control on the offensive end. They weren’t rattled by SU’s defense.

The second problem with the zone lately has been the inability to locate the big men on the baseline and the free throw line. UVA and GT had two terrific forward combos. Mike Tobey (6’11”, 255 lbs) and Akil Mitchell (6’9”, 235 lbs) tracked down 10 total offensive rebounds and scored 18 of their combined 23 points on lay-ups or dunks.

Fast forward to Tuesday night against Georgia Tech. Daniel Miller (7’0”, 275 lbs) and Rob Carter Jr. (6’9” 250 lbs) pulled down 15 total boards and 16 of their combined 27 points were also on lay-ups or dunks. Tyler Ennis observed the biggest problem with the zone after the loss a few nights ago.

“It’s rebounding. We can get a lot better. Us guards as well, helping out the bigs. It’s tough, you got the guards crashing in for offensive rebounds, and I think anyone at the top could do a better job helping.”

The rebounding issue is in large part thanks to Jerami Grant’s absence. He grabs about sevens per game. But neither CJ Fair nor Michael Gbinije have done a specular job to help contain their opponents on the glass. The backside of the zone is a very vulnerable spot right now.

Just remember how many Dan Miller dunks we witnessed on Tuesday.

Syracuse has struggled against some of the ACC’s most complete centers. Miller compiled six blocks in addition to his 15 points. UVA outrebounded SU by 10. Even Garrick Sherman of Notre Dame (16 points, 8 rebounds v. SU on 2/3) and Jabari Parker (17 PPG, 9.5 RPG v. SU in two games) had some of their better games against the Orange. The defense needs a break. It needs Jerami Grant to come back healthy for the tournament. Because if not, Syracuse’s once “season of destiny” could come crashing down early in the NCAA Tournament.

Posted by: Kevin Fitzgerald

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