Based on their non-conference victories, it would seem ludicrous to even suggest that St. John’s can defeat Syracuse this Sunday. The Orange have beaten Minnesota, California, Indiana, and Baylor, a win strengthened by the Bears’ showing last Friday. The Red Storm? A win over Georgia Tech, but there are also unsettling losses to Wisconsin and Penn State (it is also worth mentioning that during the first half’s initial 15 minutes against the Yellow Jackets, SJU looked borderline bored on the court).
A casual glance at the statistics reveals a Syracuse defense that hasn’t deviated from prior teams. The Cuse’s 2-3 zone is holding opponents to .95 points per possession (per Ken Pomeroy), and their perimeter length has forced teams to commit a turnover on nearly 27% of their possessions. However, despite their winning streak, Syracuse’s wing and interior defense should concern Jim Boeheim and his staff, and if St. John’s can exploit those areas, the Johnnies could be primed for a win at the Carrier Dome Annex (aka Madison Square Garden).
The Orange are one of the nation’s leading shot blocking teams, deflecting 18.5% of opponents’ attempts, yet this is the first season in the KenPom era that Syracuse’s opponents have an effective field goal percentage above 50%. Why the change? According to data provided by Hoop-Math.com, teams are taking fewer shots within the arc, but the Cuse is rejecting a much smaller percentage. Coupled with a significant bump in two-point field goal percentage — 34.9% to 44.3% — and teams are capitalizing from the open looks. A large majority of those openings are the result of offensive rebounds, the Cuse’s traditional bugbear but one that has never been troubling because of their shot-blocking prowess. But opposing squads are converting a whopping 1.34 points per put back, connecting on 78% of those boards at the rim (up from 69% a year ago).
It has been some time since a Boeheim-led team consistently raced up and down the court — during the past four seasons, including 2014, the Cuse have used roughly 65 possessions per game — so the majority of the team’s defensive stops naturally occur once they have settled into their zone, but the defense has so far been lackluster in the halfcourt. After a Cuse miss, opponents are making 44% of their twos, and surprisingly, after a Cuse make, they are converting 57% of their twos. The breakdown’s cause could due to the ease with which teams are moving the ball in the zone coupled with the additional possession conversion, hindering the Cuse as they try to post consistent stops.
The side of the court has historically been where the Orange force turnovers and encourage poor shots. The wing is a crucial position in the 2-3: that defender is responsible to close out on shooters, guard the baseline, and prevent dribble-drives. For example, James Southerland, a member of last year’s team, was very good at preventing both clear looks and for closing out ferociously on opponents. The 2014 squad, though, hasn’t been as effective. Teams are making 36% of their shots beyond the arc, and interestingly, the majority of those shots are coming on the arc’s sides. Squads are converting .89 points per wing three, a percentage that has dramatically risen from 2013 (.66 PPP). It is worth noting this change can be attributed to sheer luck, but it will be an area to watch for when ACC play begins, and if conference teams are taking advantage of slow rotations, poor closeouts, and openings.
This is a much different St. John’s team than the 2013 iteration. This SJU squad moves the ball particularly well — posting an assist rate of 56.1% — has managed to lower their already miniscule turnover percentage. The addition of Jamal Branch and Rysheed Jordan to their deep backcourt has help unstick the ball and the offense appears to flow better (even if D’Angelo Harrison takes more than one-third of the team’s shots). The season is young, but the team is making their jump shots, making .92 per spot-up, a vast improvement from a season ago, and while SJU has never been a good offensive rebounding team, Orlando Sanchez and JaKarr Sampson has shown flashes of offensively living within the interior, eschewing a perimeter jump shot for a cut to the free throw line or a drive. This match-up will significantly impact the rest of SJU’s season, and one has to expect their familiarity with the Cuse’s zone, combined with that defense’s seemingly shaky start and the potential peaking of Sanchez (coach Steve Lavin told me during the preseason he thought Sanchez would begin to impact games by December, and against Fordham, Sanchez had by far his best outing), could signal a big win for Lavin and Co.