As we all transition into the new year, Syracuse men’s basketball is going through the wringer unlike any other time in recent memory. The Orange (7-6, 1-1 ACC) are off to their worst start since the 1969-70 season, and there’s a multitude of reasons why. The team’s offense has been top-heavy, its depth is razor thin, and its players are struggling with inconsistency.
However, the biggest problem with SU at the moment is an unfamiliar one. A program accustomed to its unorthodox zone providing perennially stingy defense has now seen its frontcourt crumble. ‘Cuse’s scoring defense ranks 315th out of 358 teams in Division I and rates 188th in KenPom defensive efficiency (which adjusts for pace, among other factors). Head coach Jim Boeheim’s squad has been blistered by high-powered and scuffling teams alike, and he let his frustration be known in Monday’s ACC Coaches Zoom call.
“Our defense was a disgrace [vs. Virginia]. That’s me, I’m the coach. I’m responsible for that…A couple guys made multiple defensive mistakes. You can’t win games that way. We’ve already demonstrated that. Our offense is more than good enough. Our defense has been horrendous.” (Jim Boeheim, 1/3/22)
At the very least, Boeheim’s acknowledgement of the problems and requisite accountability are refreshing. So is the realization that he reserves some bile for non-reporters. The question now is whether or not actual solutions can be implemented. Barring some unexpected breakthroughs or hot streaks, it looks unlikely in the short term.
It’s easy to find examples on tape that show some of SU’s cracks in its defensive foundation. Take this easy pitch-and-catch around the arc between Virginia’s Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, and Armaan Franklin. Clark in particular has usually been a thorn in ‘Cuse’s side, but it shouldn’t have been as easy for him as it was Saturday. Per KenPom, the Orange are dead last in the nation in A/FGM. In other words, Syracuse is giving up a ton of wide-open, easily-assisted shots – like that Clark three-pointer. It’s a stat that speaks to disorganized positioning, which seems to be a source of a lot of SU’s frustration.
Passes into the mid and high post like these have become an Achilles’ heel for SU. Other teams can muscle inside and bang the glass against Syracuse’s already-weak rebounding or kick out passes for threes. It looked bad on that early play – especially with Joe Girard standing there like a statue – but it looks worse on this late-game dagger where Girard and Buddy Boeheim start the possession way higher in the zone than they should and turn their backs to the shooter (UVA’s Jayden Gardner) behind them.
It’s not at all impossible to clean these issues up. Jim Boeheim’s criticisms are sharp but warranted, and he accurately describes a lot of the team’s defensive issues as “mistakes”. The Orange might be mistake-prone right now, but they don’t have to be for much longer. It all depends on how quickly they can get everyone on the same page and mount stronger possessions and games.