If you had just listened to the criticism of Syracuse’s 2021-22 prospects and nothing else, you would’ve probably thought Syracuse men’s basketball was going to be the collegiate Washington Generals this season. Restlessness with head coach Jim Boeheim’s antique 2-3 zone and accurate concerns about the team’s defensive ability coupled to hold pundits back from dishing high praise on this year’s edition of SU hoops. Include the Fizz in that group, too.
However, even though SU has tightened some bolts after getting dragged around the Dome by Colgate and bludgeoned in the Bahamas, this defense should still concern you. Last night’s 63-60 shocker over Florida State isn’t necessarily a reprieve for the embattled unit, either.
First, let’s start with the sheer numbers. Even after holding Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles to 60 points, SU ranks 330th out of 358 Division I teams in scoring defense and is allowing 79.1 points per game. ‘Cuse gets similarly poor marks in field goal percentage allowed (64.3%, 335th in D1), three-pointers allowed per game (11.1, second-worst in D1), and offensive rebounds allowed per game (11.6, 314th in D1). There’s a lot of basketball still to be played for SU, but if the season ended today, SU’s scoring defense would be the worst for the program since 1967-68 – an 11-14 squad that played as an Independent in Manley Field House under head coach Fred B. Lewis. Jim Boeheim has had only two of his teams ever give up more than 75.0 points per game in a single season: the 1988-1989 team that still won 30 games, and a mediocre 1981-82 squad.
Lately, Boeheim has punctuated his usual dreary postgame pressers with admissions that his defense is going to “have to get better”. If you don’t believe him, just look at the tinkering he’s done with his patented zone. Against Indiana, SU morphed into a 1-3-1 zone and held the unprepared Hoosiers mostly in check while it was on the floor. The Orange did it again against Florida State, and Boeheim said afterwards that “we’ve never used it [the 1-3-1]” before this season. At least so far, it seems to be an effective changeup against teams with good enough outside shooting to pick apart the 2-3.
That being said, Syracuse can’t count on winning white-knucklers against good teams by throwing in the occasional screwball on defense. SU has been scorched this year by Colgate, Auburn, and Indiana (in the second half) and likely only got past Florida State because the Seminoles had such an awful shooting night. There’s no easy cure for the ills because Syracuse still lacks a truly dominant, physical big man. Center Jesse Edwards is 6’11” and the tallest guy on the team, but his gangly frame at times makes him look like a car dealership tube man trying to defend the post.
SU in this day and age is an offensive team. We’ve seen what happens when this squad isn’t shooting well, and it’s not pretty. With tough games coming up against old Big East foes and conference opponents, don’t pin your hopes on this defense turning into a dominant unit – at least until it puts together a few solid performances in a row.