“We’ve got to score a lot of points against them. They’re going to score a lot of points because we can’t stop them.”
After coming up just short to No. 8 Florida State in Tallahassee:
“It was a great second-half effort offensively but we just couldn’t get a stop.”
And finally in the most recent, demoralizing loss to Louisville:
“That was it. That was the game. They just got too many easy shots down there.”
He’s gotten creative with the way that he’s phrased it, but the message is the same: Syracuse’s defense is bad. And we’re not just talking about, “yeah, they’re not great”, middle-of-the-pack kind of bad. We’re talking about historically bad for a program that, for years, predicated itself on having a unique and difficult to attack defense.
According to KenPom (who Coach Boeheim doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of), Syracuse ranks 139th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency with a 100.2, which is the number of points KenPom’s analytics say that SU would allow per 100 possessions against an average Division I team.
KenPom’s being doing his thing since the 2001-2002 season and in that 19-year stretch, not once has Syracuse’s defense been rated that poorly. The closest it ever got to that number was in the 2016-17 season that ended with a loss to Ole Miss in the second round of the NIT. That year, the Orange checked in at 119th in the nation. For even more context, in that same stretch, an average Syracuse defense ranked 38th in the metric, a full 101 spots clear of the current standard.
For those like Coach Boeheim who aren’t the biggest fans of the analytics game, let’s break it down strictly by points allowed per game. After giving up a 90-spot to Louisville on Wednesday, the Orange now rank 12th (out of 15) in the ACC in scoring defense at 69.6 points per game. In the last two decades, Syracuse’s defense has allowed that many points per game just three times, 74.3 in 07-08, 71.7 in 08-09 and 71.1 in 16-17.
It’s become pretty evident that this defense is bordering on downright terrible and has cost the Orange countless games this season when it resembled more of a sieve than a deterrent to opponent scoring (the disinterested-looking end of the Louisville game is a great example of that). And the most frustrating part of it all? It’s not just one thing that’s holding the defense down.
In the first half of the Louisville game, SU was killed by the Cardinals’ Ryan McMahon from beyond the three-point line. That’s to be expected with the zone, one of its weaknesses has always been if SU runs into a good three-point shooting team or a hot marksman who can shoot over the top of a packed-in zone and dominate the game from the perimeter.
Typically, however, Coach Boeheim has been a mastermind at making in-game adjustments when the zone isn’t up-to-snuff in the early moments of the game. He tried to do that again oN Wednesday against U of L, but it didn’t really work out. Because McMahon and some other Cardinals (Jordan Nwora comes to mind) have seemingly limitless range (McMahon has taken 81% of his shots from beyond the arc this season), SU’s adjustment was to extend the zone further out to guard the three-point line in the second half.
That didn’t work either because Louisville did such a good job of sharing the basketball and spreading out the zone that it led to easy back-door and baseline feeds which gave the Cardinals easy buckets on the interior. Because this year’s version of the Orange is so young and inexperienced in playing the 2-3 zone, they easily get beat by quality ball movement against bigger teams.
Excruciatingly painful levels of foul trouble from SU’s big men that have forced inexperienced and, in some cases, unready freshmen into the game in crucial moments when stops are a necessity not a desire.
Add that to the incomplete inability to stop a skilled opposing big man or prevent opponents from grabbing offensive boards (Florida State and Louisville combined for 32 in the last two games) and it quickly becomes apparent that Syracuse’s defense is a complete liability and something that needs to be figured out not only for the rest of the year but in the entirety of the near future.