Coming off a stellar 30-5 season that ended only when confronted with national runner-up Butler, Syracuse is off to a perfect 8-0 start this season. The team's performance has been somewhat underwhelming, though, as half of those wins have been achieved in narrow fashion. The Orange's victories over William and Mary, Michigan, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina State all came by 6 points or fewer. While the pollsters still have Syracuse in the top ten (#8/7, mirroring MSU's positions in the latest polls), KenPom's calculations have dropped them to #21 in the nation following the series of tight triumphs. That ranking is a function of coming in at #26 in adjusted efficiency on both offense and defense.
Syracuse is led by three returning starters:
- 6'2" junior guard Scoop Jardine is averaging 11.0 points and 7.0 assists per game. He hasn't been a very efficient scorer, with a shooting line of .359/.282/.696--although those numbers were much stronger last season (.520/.389/.750).
- 6'7" junior forward Kris Joseph is averaging 14.6 points per game on a .537/.333/.738 shooting line. Joseph gets to the line with frequency, averaging 6.0 FTA per game. Joseph's been a little up and down, scoring 16+ points in 4 games (including a season-high 22 vs. Michigan) but getting held to single digits in 2 others.
- 6'9" senior forward Rick Jackson is the Orange's interior threat, averaging 12.7 points (.569 FG%) and a whopping 13.0 rebounds per game. Jackson posted a Chamberlain-/Russellesque 22 rebounds earlier this season against the University of Detroit.
6'4" sophomore guard Brandon Triche (8.3 points and 3.4 assists per game) and 6'10" freshman forward Baye Moussa Keita (6.1 rebounds/game in just 21 minutes/game) round out the top five for Syracuse in terms of minutes played (Keita doesn't start). Four other Orange players play at least 10 minutes/game, including highly-touted freshman Fab Melo, a seven-footer who's been slowed by injury. (7'0" Detroit native DaShonte Riley is out for the year with a foot injury, BTW).
When MSU Has the Ball
When you think "Syracuse," the first thing that comes to mind, of course, is "2-3 zone." Thankfully, Dylan has already done all the heavy lifting for us on that topic. His summary paragraph on Jim Boeheim's approach to the 2-3:
Contrary to popular belief, Syracuse's 2-3 zone is not a "passive defense" by any means. It's not a defense that Jim Boeheim uses to mask his team's weaknesses, rather it's a defense he uses to utilize his team's length and athleticism. It's a defense that Syracuse has specifically targeted their recruiting toward and it can be devastating to face. There are a multitude of traps that Boeheim can run out of the zone but it is not generally known for forcing a lot of turnovers. Instead the zone holds the opposition to a low shooting percentage by forcing them into uncomfortable shots altered by the length and athleticism of its defenders.
The "forcing uncomfortable shots" part has worked pretty well this season. The Syracuse defense has forced its opponents to take shots from 3-point range with a higher frequency than any defense in the country--on a full 47.2% of field goal attempts. And on the relatively rare occasions opposing players do get into the lane, the Orange defenders rank in the top 5 nationally in block percentage. Opponents are, however, shooting a decent 45.9% on 2-point attempts--presumably a function of easy baskets converted when the 2-3 zone finally breaks down.
Getting some of those easy baskets is important because there won't be many easy points at the free throw line. Syracuse ranks in the top ten nationally in opponents' free throw rate.
While the 2-3 zone isn't specifically designed to force turnovers, it does a decent job at it. Syracuse has come up with the ball on 22.7% of defensive possessions, just slightly up from last year's number. Four different Orange players average at least one steal per game, led by Jardine with 2.1/game.
Definitely click through to read Dylan's full analysis of how to beat the 2-3 zone, but the big-picture key is to find the right balance between (1) showing enough patience to get a clean look at the basket without forcing the ball into a position that's vulnerable to trapping (i.e., the corners) while (2) being aggressive enough with the ball to "make the zone work."
Doing those things will require a full team effort, but two players have skills that will be of particular use. Durrell Summers' ability to elevate on his jumpshot can turn a marginal 3-point look into a clean one. MSU can't afford for him to have a prolonged shooting slump in this game. Draymond Green, meanwhile, will be the guy trying to break the zone down from the high post, making passes over/through/under the lengthy Orange defenders. MSU was at its best Saturday vs. Bowling Green's (obviously less formidable) 2-3 defense when Green was distributing the ball from the key area. (Aside: Just when you thought Draymond couldn't get any more versatile, he's now added sportswriting to his resume'. It's Insider content, so I can't tell if he avoids split infinitives the same way he avoids missed box outs.)
Kalin Lucas may have a little tougher time getting quality shots off against the zone, although screening at the top of the zone could help him find seams to penetrate into. And given Lucas's lack of practice time of late, another smart, efficient performance from Korie Lucious will likely be a key ingredient for success.
Chances are MSU is going to turn the ball over a decent clip; the team has yet to post a turnover percentage below 23% against a Division I opponent this season. To balance out the number of scoring opportunities, MSU will have to take advantage of the 2-3's main weakness: a susceptibility to giving up offensive boards. Syracuse has allowed its opponents to grab 32.0% of available offensive rebounds. Green, Delvon Roe, and Garrick Sherman will need to fight through the gaps in the zone to beat Jackson and Keita to missed shots.
When Syracuse Has the Ball
The Orangemen's unimpressive scorelines this season have been more a function of inconsistency on offense than defense. Syracuse has held 7 of 8 opponents under 0.98 points per possession while scoring over 1.02 points per possession in just 4 of the 8 games. The main issue has simply been shooting the ball. Orange players have made only 29.0% of 3-point attempts and 63.0% of free throw attempts.
At 6'7", Kris Joseph will be a tough match-up at the 3 for the generally smaller MSU defenders. Look for the MSU defenders to hedge toward Joseph to try to keep him out of the lane and force the ball to other Syracuse shooters.
Syracuse does a good job of maximizing its scoring opportunities, limiting its turnovers (17.9%) and grabbing a good number of offensive rebounds (36.9%). The team is led in those two endeavors by Jardine and Jackson, respectively. Jackson, in particular, will be a major test for the MSU big men, comparable to the offensive rebounders the team saw in Maui. It'll be interesting to see whether Tom Izzo has enough trust in Derrick Nix at this point to give him 10+ minutes on the floor to push Jackson around in the paint.
This Syracuse team has some quality offensive players, but it doesn't look as dangerous as last year's Wes Johnson-/Andy Rautins-led squad. MSU should be able to contain the Syracuse playmakers if the team plays with the discipline and intensity they've shown since the Washington game.
KenPom says this is basically a coin-flip game, predicting a 70-69 MSU win in 69 possessions. Despite the continuing turnover struggles, I feel pretty good about MSU's chances tomorrow night. Historically, MSU performs better against zones than against aggressive man-to-man defense because zones are easier to game plan against--and game planning is Tom Izzo's spes-EE-ality. In this case, Izzo will have had almost a full week to prepare the team to play effective zone offense. Hopefully, the Bowling Green game got the major glitches out of the system.
A win would give the team a second quality nonconference win, with the chance to add a third against Texas (at home) later this month. A loss would signal that the team's path to a cohesive identity may extend out quite a bit further than we'd like.