How Successful Can Syracuse Be With Scoop and Brandon Leading?
Now that realignment has
stopped paused, today is as good a time as any to return to the here-and-now and the short-term future instead of focusing on what things will look like three years from now. Now, if I were a betting man, I’d put money on Syracuse and Pitt leaving the Big East sometime before the 2014 swan song that John Marinatto favors, but let’s not forget that following the team itself is what gives rise to all the hubbub over realignment in the first place.
Ever since Syracuse was bounced by Marquette in the NCAA Tournament, local, regional and national writers have been heaping praise on SU’s guard core for the 2011-12 season. Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche had busy summers, attending skills academies and representing their country in assorted international play. There’s faith in Dion Waiters after he atoned for his lip service to Jim Boeheim by netting a career-high scoring total in the tournament loss to the Golden Eagles, and Michael Carter-Williams performed in a number of high-school all-star games after committing to the school.
For added measure, hopes are pinned on Trevor Cooney to help shore up the lack of a perimeter punch. All five are known much more for their offense than for their defense, and they’re being counted on to provide the bulk of the team’s scoring. It may not be all fair, because the team got zilch out of Fab Melo and Baye Keita, SU’s returning post players, last year, but it is what it is. The fact remains that when you read blurbs about SU being in the top five to begin the next season, or top ten after UConn added Andre Drummond, you don’t hear about Melo or Keita realizing their potential, you read mostly about the Orange riding Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche’s leadership and scoring capability deep into the tournament, with a mention of Kris Joseph’s potential as a senior thrown in.
Syracuse has featured scoring guards prominently in recent years, but is relying so heavily on offensive production from the backcourt really the best recipe in Jim Boeheim’s system? To answer this question, I took a look at SU’s NCAA Tournament teams over the last ten years, and the guard rotation that Boeheim fielded in each season. Playing time factors in this selection, as I wanted to look at guards who played at least 15 minutes per game.* The following table shows the guard rotations for each season, how much they scored, and how much of the team’s scoring they accounted for.
*While Demetris Nichols was a tweener, splitting time at forward and guard spots, he was mostly a wing and played in the back of the zone on defense, which is why you won’t find him included. Josh Pace, who was mostly a small forward, stepped into the guard spot during the 2004 season when Billy Edelin left the team for personal reasons, so he is included.
The results are definitely mixed, but one thing is clear. In SU’s most successful seasons of the last ten years, the team wasn’t very dependent on the guards to put points on the board. In 2003, when the Orange finished 30-5 and was crowned as national champions, and in 2010, when the team streaked to another 30-5 record only to see their tournament hopes collapse with Arinze Onuaku’s quadriceps, the backcourt provided less than 42% of the team’s scoring.
That doesn’t mean that SU can’t be successful with a more formidable guard rotation. The 2004 team powered heavily by Gerry McNamara, Billy Edelin and Josh Pace – who played guard when Edelin left the team – packed a punch even while Hakim Warrick posted one of the best individual seasons ever as a forward. The 2009 trio of Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins pulled Syracuse into the tournament after a two-year hiatus and led a potent offense that finished the season ranked 11th in the nation in scoring and first in the conference in that category. They were also 21st in the country in offensive efficiency, a category which neutralizes the pace of offense.
The data also show that Syracuse won’t necessarily enjoy a terrific season when a complementary guard core like the 2006 team falls flat. The backcourt was dry beyond Gerry McNamara’s production and Eric Devendorf’s good start to his career. Diehards remember the remarkable Big East Tournament run fondly and can recall where they were as if it was their wedding day. However, that team struggled to a 7-9 finish in the regular season, and part of why that conference tournament run is so memorable is because Syracuse would have hosted additional home games if it the team didn’t win four games in a row by a combined nine points.
It takes all sorts of combinations of frontcourt and backcourt production to make a successful team. That’s part of what makes the game fun, and there are certainly other factors beyond simply scoring. After all, we’re only looking at one side of the ball and roughly half of the team’s offensive production. But when SU has enjoyed its best years, they’ve been from squads with greater offensive emphasis on the frontcourt than the backcourt. Can Scoop, Brandon and Company buck the trend?