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March 6, 2014 - Dylan Burkhardt

What’s wrong with Syracuse?

After starting the season 25-0, Syracuse lost four of its past five games.

While the Orange defense hasn’t been great during that stretch – Virginia tagged Syracuse for its worst defensive performance since November 28th, 2007 – the offense has been of far greater concern.

Syracuse hasn’t managed to top a point per possession of offensive output in its past six games  – a stretch that includes four losses and a pair of single possession wins over middling ACC opponents. The Orange were held below a point per trip just twice in their first 24 games, but now can’t seem to find the basket.

Syracuse’s offensive fall off has been drastic.

Split PPP Split PPP
First 24 Games 1.17 First 16 Games
Against Major-Conf
1.16
Last 6 Games 0.97 Last 6 Games 0.97

Syracuse had a very good offense, even against major-conference foes, for the first two-thirds of the season. Suddenly, everything went wrong. But how can such an impressive offense turn rotten? Here’s a look at where the struggles are occurring.

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Note: Click all charts to enlarge

Syracuse’s shooting numbers have regressed in almost every shooting zone: from the mid-range, the wings, at the rim and in the corners. The only place the Syracuse has shown improvement is in the middle of the paint and around the free throw line.

Master of the mid-range

C.J. Fair leads Syracuse in scoring at just shy of 17 points per game, but doesn’t grade out as the most efficient volume scorer in the country by any means. The main reason for that is that Fair shoots more mid-range shots than just about anyone in the country.

Fair’s affinity for the mid-range shot stems from watching a former Syracuse great.

“I always liked Carmelo’s game,” Fair told Syracuse.com. “He had a sweet mid-range game. I always thought I would be the person who could knock down the mid-range jumper. Making plays from there, that’s where I kind of expanded my game this year. I’d look at Carmelo to see how he’d get separation for his shot or make a move. Sometimes I’d try to implement that myself.”

The three-point shot is worth an extra point, so it’s obviously the more efficient shot but that’s not say there’s no value to the mid-range. Fair loves shooting along the baselines, and his range extends to the corner three. As you can see, he was a better than 40% three-point shooters in both corners for the first 24 games, but shoots 25% or worse above the wings.

Here’s a look at Fair’s shot chart before the slump and during the slump.

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Fair’s shooting numbers have taken a step back on the right side of the floor, but the shot that has been completely absent is the corner three. Fair hasn’t hit a corner three in Syracuse’s last six games and hasn’t even attempted one from the left side of the floor. Corner threes are generally considered efficient shots because they are a sign of great spacing. The majority of corner threes are assisted off drive-and-kicks, which means they are more open. Fair isn’t getting these looks and appears to be forcing action from the wings.

One-sided point guard

Tyler Ennis is one of the best freshman in the country and has impressed scouts with his poise and play-making ability all season long. He’s projected as a lottery pick and is one of the best pure point guards in the country. But when I pulled up his shot chart, I was shocked to see that he’s significantly better on the left side of the floor.

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Ennis shoots 43% on the left side of the floor, 44% in the middle and just 23% on the right. Coincidentally, the most famous shot that Ennis made this season, came on his weaker side of the floor.

Distribution is obviously a critical part of Ennis’ game, but his scoring has decreased during the slump.  Ennis averaged 11.9 points per game with a 42.7 eFG% in Syracuse’s first 24 games. His scoring average has increased to 13.8 points per game during the slump, but his eFG% has fallen to 37.3%. Ennis is scoring more, but he’s shooting more.

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The notable shift in Ennis’ game is that he’s not getting many attempts in his two favorite spots: the left wing three and the left wing mid-range. He looks to be driving to the basket more often and settling for the 9-foot floater in the middle of the paint.

Cooney cools off

Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn has profiled just how important Cooney is to Syracuse’s three-point shooting attack. Cooney accounts for 57% of Syracuse’s made three-point field goals and he’s one of the more lethal three-point shooters in the country. At least he was.

Cooney is in the middle of a wretched stretch where he’s not shooting better than 25% in any of the five three-point zones. His scoring average has dropped from 13.9 points per game (43.5% on threes) to 7.5 points per game (20.9% on threes). The visual evidence is damning.

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Jerami Grant’s absence

Jerami Grant has missed time with a back injury, and his absence has hurt the Orange as well. Syracuse doesn’t have a deep bench to begin with – The Orange rank 339th nationally in percentage of minutes played by reserves at 20.3%-  and Grant is clearly Syracuse’s No. 3 offensive option.

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Grant is similar to Fair, demanding additional attention in the mid-range. He  isn’t the most effective shooter, but he’s a shot taker all over the court — inside the three-point line. Without Grant, defenses can focus their attention on Fair.

“People don’t want to hear it, coaches don’t want to use it as an excuse, but Syracuse is not the same team without Grant. They’re just not,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “And they haven’t been since he’s been banged up. It throws everybody off.”

The underrated element that Grant brings to the Syracuse offense doesn’t show up in a shot chart. Grant attempts 65 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, the most of any Orange starter.

Bottom Line

Grant’s health and Cooney’s shooting stroke are critical to any NCAA tournament run for the Orange. It’s clear that Ennis isn’t quite a mature enough scorer to carry Syracuse and C.J. Fair can’t hit enough mid-range shots to do it himself. Rakeem Christmas provides a low-post option, but he’s primarily a finisher around the bucket. Syracuse’s other options just aren’t ready to carry this team.

The good news is that Grant is practicing, although his status remains in question. At this point, Syracuse is what it is. The Orange are a good defensive team, they don’t turn the ball over, they crash the offensive glass, but just don’t have a lot of depth. If the main options aren’t clicking, Syracuse could be a good bet to go home early in March.

Shot Charts / Teams CJ Fair / Jerami Grant / Syracuse / Trevor Cooney / Tyler Ennis /