Jim Boeheim is in uncharted territory midway through his 46th year at Syracuse — his Orange are a .500 team, and that's never happened at this juncture of a season.
He blames it mostly on the failings of his signature zone defense, which has to be a source of immense frustration for a man who made the 2-3 virtually synonymous with his name and the postseason successes of his teams.
“Our defense has been horrendous,” Boeheim said. “There’s no excuse, really, at any stage of the season, to make some of the defensive mistakes that we’re making."
Syracuse (8-8, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) ranks last in the ACC — 309th nationally — in scoring defense, allowing 75.6 points per game, and opponents have hit 173 3-pointers in 517 attempts (both figures lead the nation), a conversion rate of 33.5% that ranks 205th among 350 Division I teams.
The second half of a win against struggling Pittsburgh (6-10, 1-3) on Tuesday night offered a glimpse of what the zone can do when the players are in sync. The Orange limited the Panthers to 2-of-10 shooting from deep, 5 of 21 overall, and pulled away to a 77-61 victory in what was a one-point game at halftime.
More importantly, perhaps, burly John Hugley was held in check. The 280-pound sophomore, who leads the Panthers in scoring (15.1), finished with eight points on 1-of-6 shooting.
“The second half was the best that we have really played all year by quite a lot,” Boeheim said. “Our defense was good. That was the difference. This is about our defense. That’s it.”
There were signs the Orange defense would be challenged. Syracuse lost 100-85 at home in late November to upstate New York foe Colgate, a team the Orange had beaten 54 straight times and hadn't lost to since February 1962, six months before Jim Boeheim enrolled as a freshman at Syracuse. The Orange started the game on a 17-2 run but trailed at halftime for the second straight game after allowing the Raiders to hit 11 3-pointers. Colgate tacked on another seven 3s in the second half and didn't waver when Syracuse pulled within six points with under four minutes to play.
“We weren’t covering shooters," Boeheim said. “We really weren’t doing much inside. It’s why we’ve struggled.”
Offensively, Syracuse ranks fourth in the ACC in scoring, averaging 78.4 points. The starting lineup: senior guard Buddy Boeheim leads at 18.9 points per game, though his long-range game has been inconsistent while fighting through constant double teams; brother Jimmy Boeheim, a graduate transfer from Cornell, is second (14.8); junior point guard Joe Girard tops the ACC with 46 3-pointers; forward Cole Swider, a Villanova transfer, is averaging 12.8 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds but has struggled adapting to the defense; and 6-foot-11 junior center Jesse Edwards is at 11.8 points and 6.4 boards with a conference-leading 47 blocks even though he's fouled out of nine games.
There have been gutsy performances, foremost among them a 112-110 overtime win over Indiana in late November after the Orange squandered a three-point lead with 4 seconds left in regulation. But a week after a 63-60 win at Florida State to open ACC play in early December, the defense gave up a wide-open, go-ahead 3 to Georgetown's Kaiden Rice — his fifth of the game from well behind the arc — with 71 seconds left and the Hoyas won by four.
“You give people open shots, they’re going to make them,” Jim Boeheim said.
A COVID-19 outbreak hit the team after the loss and a game against Georgia Tech was postponed before Syracuse suffered a 74-69 setback at home to Virginia on New Year's Day. The Cavaliers finished with 40 points in the paint and 5-foot-10 guard Kihei Clark, the smallest player on the court, helped deliver the knockout in the final three minutes, sneaking in for a layup, feeding Jayden Gardner for a jumper, and snaring the rebound of a missed 3 by Girard to keep the Orange at bay.
“You can’t give up 74 points to them and let them shoot the shots they got. Too easy looks,” Buddy Boeheim said.
Last week the Orange suffered a pair of tough road losses. Miami scored 25 points off 19 Syracuse turnovers and won 88-87, and Wake Forest won 77-74 in overtime with Edwards on the bench after fouling out in 20 minutes.
“It’s taken longer than I would have hoped for, but I think we are getting better,” Jim Boeheim said. “When you lose a game, it doesn’t mean you didn’t play well. We played really well at Wake Forest and Miami.
"I told the players before the (Pittsburgh) game it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks or what anybody says or what the record is. Every game is going to be tough.”
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