The Cats led 76-74 and appeared to be on their way to their 5th Final 4. After finishing the season 18-8 and 10-4 in the Big 8 to finish 2nd, K-State made their way to the final of the 1975 East Regional with wins over Penn and Boston College. It seemed the legend of junior guard Chuckie Williams would only grow after this 30 point performance to help K-State advance to San Diego. However, it wasn’t meant to be; Syracuse hit the game tying shot with 5 seconds left and went on to win in overtime 95-87 to make their first Final 4. A young Syracuse grad by the name of Jim Boeheim was an assistant on that staff and would take over the program 2 years later, the rest for Syracuse basketball is history.
That all occurred less than a month before I was born. 2 years ago K-State nearly met a depleted Syracuse squad in another regional final, but Butler changed all of those plans and we all remember what happened in Salt Lake City. Now the Cats will get that opportunity against a Syracuse squad without their leading bigman; sometimes its difficult to measure the impact of one player looking at the box score. I won’t attempt to duplicate what Luke Winn has already done in breaking down the impact of Fab Melo on Syracuse’s defense, but its clear the impact is significant. Still, Syracuse has plenty of quality players with 4 Top 50 HS players as main contributors on their roster and 6 from the Top 100. Besides Melo, several are likely future NBA players, but it doesn’t necessarily appear that they look to be lottery picks like Syracuse has had 3 of in the last several years.
Similar to Frank Martin, Boeheim is most known for his defensive philosophy and offensively he allows some freedom for his players. Against K-State’s man defense, expect Syracuse to run some version of a traditional motion offense, especially trying to get shots for their main scorers Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, and Brandon Triche. The Orange rely on good guard play and similar to Southern Miss put a premium on protecting the basketball, finishing the year as one of the Top 10 teams nationally in turnover % at only 15.9%. In only Big East games they were even better at 15.5%, but in their 21 games against kenpom Top 100 teams they averaged 16.3%. They only had 7 games all season at 20% or worse in TO%, but they were at 25% in 2 of their final 3 games, including their loss to Cincinnati in the Big East Tournament. The Orange were also a very good offensive rebounding team, finishing in the Top 50 at 36.5%, but slipped to 33.5% in Big East play and 34.0% against kenpom Top 100 teams. Losing Melo could be a key here, because he was by far their best offensive rebounder. The Orange are also a solid shooting team, finishing the year at 51.9% eFG%, but again in Big East play that number slipped to 50.3% and against Top 100 competition 48.8%. They don’t get to the FT line a lot, finishing at only 31.8% in FT rate and 31.9% against Top 100 teams. This all leads to a pretty efficient offense at 1.16 PPP, but again that number slips against tougher competition. In Big East play it falls to 1.09 PPP and against Top 100 teams to 1.06 PPP. Regardless, K-State will still have its handful guarding Syracuse’s athletic guards and talented swing man Kris Joseph. Syracuse doesn’t rely on the 3 PT shot a ton, withonly 31.3% of their shots coming from 3 (#203 nationally) and they shoot it pretty average at 34.5%. They have 4 guys that have attempted at least 100 on the year, with Joseph, Triche, and Waiters being their biggest threats, all hitting between 35-37%. On 2PT shots they made a respectable 52.0% and 69.1% from the FT line.
Of course most basketball fans know that Boeheim’s claim to fame is his 2-3 zone, and this year features one the the best defenses he’s ever had. This older article from Fran Fraschella does a great job explaining Boeheim’sphilosophy and some of his rotations. The Orange finished with the best defense in the Big East, limiting teams to .89 PPP on the season and .94 in league games and against Top 100 opponents. All of this while having one of the worst rebounding teams in the nation, allowing an offensive rebounding % of 38.9% on the season, ranking #341 of #345 teams. In Big East play that number slips to 39.9% and against Top 100 teams 40.3%. And all of that was with Melo’s 3.4 defensive boards per game, though his defensive rebounding % was 4th on the team. However, Syracuse counters that by being very good at forcing turnovers, making it tough for opponents to make shots, and not fouling often. Their turnover % of 25.2% ranks #6 nationally, they finished at 23.6% to lead the Big East, and they forced turnovers at a rate of 24.8% against Top 100 competition. Their defensive style is to really pressure the perimeter in the half court at the top of Boeheim’s 2-3 zone with their long group of guards ranging from 6-2 to 6-5. They force steals at rate of 14.5% which was #3 nationally. They also force you into tough shots and contested 3s, allowing opponents to shoot only 44.0% eFG% against them. That drops to 43.5% in Big East games and 45.6% against Top 100 teams. Their block % of 19.8% was #2 nationally and their 2PT% allowed was only 42.9%. Of course the key to that was Melo and his 12.9% block % individually, one of the Top 15 marks nationally. Syracuse also doesn’t foul a lot out of their zone, with a FT rate given up of only 29.8%, and 31.4% in Big East play. As Winn’s article explains, the biggest factor in Melo’s absence will be on the defensive end, especially in the middle of the 2-3 zone.
Guards/Perimeter (starters in bold)
Rotation: Joseph is Syracuse’s only player (and only real option at the SF spot) that has averaged over 70% minutes played on the season, averaging 79% for the season and 87% over the final 9 games. Jardine, Triche, and Waiters form a 3 guard rotation at the 2 guard spots (including the top of the 2-3 zone) with all averaging between 56-60% minutes on the season. The final 9 games Jardine and Waiters took on a larger role, averaging nearly 70% each while Triche’s role was reduced slightly to 56%. Carter-Williams is a talented FR who was a Top 25 recruit, but his minutes are only 20.3% for the season and an even more reduced 11% over the last 9 games.
#11 6-2 #190 SR PG Scoop Jardine - Jardine gives Syracuse a heady SR PG who averaged 4.7 assists per game for a rate of 35.4%. Jardine also averaged 8.3 points per game, but with an offensive rating of only 104.3 and eFG% of 53.7. He shot 34.9% on 86 3PT attempts and 54.5% on 143 2PT attempts. Jardine has Syracuse’s largest individual TO% of 24.3% and has a little bit of Gottlieb in him as he shot only 49.1% from the FT line. Jardine is also Syracuse’s worst defensive guard (read Winn’s article), though he averaged a decent steal % of 3.5%.
#20 6-4 #205 JR G Brandon Triche- Triche scored 9.3 PPG and shot slightly better than Jardine from 3, hitting 35.1% on 111 attempts. He had a better offensive rating at 111, but worse eFG% of 48.8%. Triche averaged 2.7 assists per game for a rate of 21.8%, and turned it over at a rate of 15.7%. He was Syracuse’s best FT shooter at 80.6%, thought he didn’t get there often. Defensively, Triche is similar to Jardine and Winn’s article considered him to be slightly better.
#32 6-7 210 SR SF Kris Joseph - Joseph was the star of this Syracuse team, leading in scoring at 13.8 PPG. However, he was not a high volume shooter, at only 23% of shots taken when he played. His offensive rating was a solid 113 and his eFG% was 50%. He led the team with 138 3PT attempts and hit 36.2% while shooting 47.2% on 216 2PT shots. His 39% was one of Syracuses’ top FT rates for perimeter players and he hit 73.9% of his FT attempts. Joseph is the player Boeheim has on the floor the most and is the key to the Orange offense, especially down the stretch of the season when he played nearly 90% of the minutes, but he had 4 games out of his final 6 with an offensive rating below 90. He was a solid defensive player, usually on their left bottom wing spot of the 2-3, averaging 3.4 defensive boards (11.5% DR%) though his steal% (2.7%) and block% (2.0%) numbers are below average.
#3 6-4 215 SO G Dion Waiters – Waiters is perhaps playing the best of any of Syracuse’s guards going into the tournament and averaged 12.6 PPG on the season. His offensive rating of 115 was the best of any perimeter player while his assist numbers were nearly identical to Triche’s. He finished with an eFG% of 54% while shooting 36.5% from 3 on 104 attempts and 53.7% on 2PT shots on 216 attempts. Waiters was Syracuse’s best perimeter defender as well, with a steal rate of 4.8%.
#12 6-5 #176 FR G Michael Carter-Williams – Carter Williams only played in 3 of the final 7 games for Syracuse, but still showed some talent. He was the leading 3PT shooter at 38.9%, but only took 18 attempts while his assist rate was 33.8%, 2nd only to Jardine’s. Its unlikely he plays a lot against us, but we must be mindful of what he can bring.
Rotation: It will be really interesting to see how Boeheim handles his posts without Melo. While Melo only averaged 57.6% minutes on the season, that increased significantly over the final 9 games when he averaged 79.5% minutes. Fair increased his minutes slightly over the last 9 games going from 66.3% for the season to 75.%. Southerland actually played slightly less down the stretch, going from 39.4% minutes to 33.4%. However, he did play 53% over the last 4 games. That leaves the 2 guys that will take on the most increased role without Melo; Christmas and Keita. Christmas starts regularly, but in more of a Louis Colon mode averaging only 25.6% minutes on the season and only 7.4% over the final 9 games. Keita averaged 27.2% on the year and 17.5% over the last 9 games.
Melo did miss 3 games in the middle of the Big East season, also for academic issues. During those games Fair’s minutes actually dropped to 57.5%, Southerland increased to 55.8% minutes, Keita played 52.5%, and Christmas played 45%. Again, Winn highlighted some of the issues this caused for the Syracuse defense in his article. I would guess that Fair and Southerland will play more minutes, though I’m not sure how effective either can be in the middle of the zone. Boeheim will have a game to work out some of the rotations again, but playing NC-Asheville (who doesn’t start a player taller than 6-5) will be a lot different than playing K-State. Fair and Christmas are listed here as the starters because that’s how Syracuse started the 3 games when Melo was out earlier in the year.
#5 6-8 #203 SO PF CJ Fair - Without Melo, Fair becomes the best post player for the Orange. He wasn’t near the presence Melo is on defense, but he was a better offensive player. Fair averaged 8.6 PPG, the best of any post player (including Melo), while shooting an eFG% of 48% (48.8% on 2PT shots) and was a very good rebounder. He averaged 2.0 offensive boards per game (8.7% OR%) and 3.5 defensive boards per game (14.3% DR%). His block % was only 2.3%, though he played one of the bottom wing spots in the 2-3 zone, usually on their right side. He has attempted 22 3PT shots on the year, but only made 27.3%.
#25 6-9 #222 FR PF Rakeem Christmas- Christmas split time with Keita rotating into Melo’s spot in the middle of the Syracuse zone. He averaged only 1.7 defensive boards and 0.7 blocks, but his rates were solid because of his limited minutes at 17.9% (DR%) and 7.6% (B%). Offensively he averaged 2.5 PPG and 0.9 offensive boards (10.6% OR%) with an offensive rating of only 103 and eFG% of 55%. In the 3 games without Melo, Christmas played 45% of the minutes and averaged 2.0 PPG, 4.7 rebounds, 2.0 offensive boards, and 1.7 blocks. Christmas led the team in FT rate at 43.3% but only had 26 attempts, hitting 61.5%. Again, Christmas played very little down the stretch with only 7.4% of the minutes played in the final 9 games.
#43 6-8 #210 JR PF James Southerland – Southerland rotated in at the PF spot with Fair, some at the SF spot with Joseph and averaged 6.6 PPG with an offensive rating of 118 and eFG% of 53%. He averaged 2.1 defensive boards (14.3% DR%), but again below average steal% and block% numbers of 2.5% and 6.7% respectively. Southerland was a threat from the perimeter as he attempts 100 threes, making 31.0%.
#12 6-10 #213 SO C Baye Moussa Keita – Keita split time with Christmas as Melo’s back-up with 27.3% minutes played on the year. Like Christmas, his minutes were even fewer late in the year at 17.5% over the final 9 games, plus he only played a total of 14 minutes the last 5 games. Keita averaged 2.2 PPG for the season, but hit 75% of the shots he took. He finished at .9 offensive boards (9.3%), 1.4 defensive boards (12.7%), and a block % of 8.7%.
Melo is a big loss to the Syracuse defense, but they still are a very good team. The length they have all over the floor will still cause K-State plenty of problems and hopefully the Cats don’t fall into the trap many teams do against Syracuse and just try to shoot over the zone. Teams on average take 36.1% of their shots from behind the arc against Syracuse, but only hit 30.6%. It is encouraging to know that K-State has traditionally attacked Baylor’s 2-3 very well, but of course Drew’s 2-3 has never been mistaken for the quality product Beoheim puts on the floor. If K-State does a good job rotating JO, Samuels, and McGruder to the FT line area and attacking the middle to force Syracuse’s inexperienced bigs to defend the rim they could have success. K-State still needs to get some perimeter shots up, but those must come from inside-out looks. And Rodriguez, Spradling, and Irving must handle the ball well against the long, aggressive guards on top of the 2-3, especially not allowing easy uncontested shots off of turnovers on the perimeter. It will be important for JO to continue his offensive success in this game because he has the length and athleticism to match Syracuse’s bigs. Of course, K-State must hit the offensive boards hard and exploit the biggest weakness Syracuse has shown all season; this is a game that Samuels could be very big for K-State if he is active and attacks smartly to draw fouls.
On defense Syracuse’s guards will cause problems for K-State. Joseph will be a tough match-up as well, but McGruder has shown that he can guard big swing players. Of course that leaves Rodriguez, Spradling, and Irving to handle Jardine, Triche, and Waiters. It will be tough to keep all 3 in front of the defense all night and it will be important for Rodriguez to stay out of foul trouble so he can stay on the floor. JO protecting the rim will be very important and him being able to guard the two more inexperienced Syracuse bigs will help. That leaves Samuels guarding Fair or Southerland, and hopefully he can take advantage of the fact that neither is great at drawing fouls. A big stat to watch will be keeping Syracuse off of the offensive glass, something K-State did very poorly in the Big 12 tournament against Baylor’s length.
After watching Syracuse’s narrow win over NC-Asheville, I noticed several things. 1st, Christmas and Keita were decent, but they aren’t Melo. They combined for a decent 10 points, 8 boards, and 2 blocks, but neither is a great defender and Asheville’s lack of size really didn’t show how K-State can exploit this. Also, Asheville shot 23 shots from behind the arc for 47% of their total shots taken; K-State will not win that way. Finally Syracuse beat Asheville on both the offensive glass and FT rate, K-State can’t expect to give up 42% and 43% in those 2 areas and win. Plus, Syracuse had their scare today, I expect them to play better on Saturday.
Syracuse has the experience in Jardine, Joseph, and Triche on the perimeter to overcome a major loss in Melo. In the NCAA tournament the key to the first weekend is often the play of your perimeter players, so it will likely come down to Rodriguez, Spradling, McGruder, and Irving. With JO’s play of late, I expect the Cats to at least match, if not surpass, the production of the Syracuse bigs. They key to the game will be whether or not the guards can protect the ball adequately and not give Syracuse easy points while also hitting enough perimeter shots to extend the zone and open up driving lanes as well as the middle without Melo’s presence to protect the rim. I’m counting on our guards to do enough and the Syracuse defense to really suffer without Melo in the middle.
Cats 65 - Orange 63
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