By Paul Gotham
Few have suggested that Jim Boeheim is an innovative mathematician.
But after watching the 2009-10 version of the Syracuse Orange, it is hard to ignore that the hall-of-fame coach has developed some new theories of mathematics.
Boeheim watched as his three leading scorers, Eric Devendorf, Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris, left the Orange program soon after the conclusion of the ’08-’09 season. Their departures subtracting a substantial amount from the SU offensive output.
Many predicted struggles for the Orange. Not one national pre-season poll mentioned Syracuse.
Boeheim and his Syracuse Orange have taken those subtractions and added to their sum for what could result in a run to this year’s Final Four.
When Devendorf, Flynn and Harris left, they took with them 45 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists per game. Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson remained, but concern revolved around whether the ’09-’10 team could survive. Could Rautins still score 10 points a game from the outside if opposing defenses did not have to worry about Devendorf ? How much would the Orange miss the rebounding of Harris? Most of all, could the entire team function with out Flynn’s play-making?
Twenty-one games into this season and the Syracuse Orange have shown their addition happened by subtraction.
The difference, subtle as it may be, is hard to ignore.
Syracuse finished last season averaging 80.2 points while limiting opponents to 71.7. Currently, the Orange score 83.5 while holding opposing teams 64.8 points.
On the surface, the change looks insignificant. Syracuse is scoring three more points and giving up almost seven fewer. In other words, the Orange outscored opponents by nine last year. This year, that number is close to 19.
Everyone will point to, as they should, the impact of Wesley Johnson. The junior transfer leads the team in points (17.1) and rebounds (9.0). But a stat that gets overlooked with Johnson is that for his 17 points, he is taking just 11 shots per game.
Johnson’s efficiency is the result of an offensive rhythm created by a group of guys who enjoy playing together. Nothing is more representative of this than the smile that Johnson wears so frequently on the court.
At 6’7″, Johnson can score in the paint, but the small forward also hits 44.6 percent from behind the three-point arc.
This provides a needed complement for Rautins. Opposing defenses can not simply focus their attention on Rautins. This factor has had a divisive effect on opponents. Johnson and Rautins have combined for 79 trifectas thus far. At a rate of five threes per game, or 15 points, this creates seams in the defense.
Seams that Rautins exploits for the good of his teammates. The senior has dished out over five assists per game. Beyond that, Rautins regularly throws the pass that leads to an assist. This effort does not go in his personal stat column but contributes to the end result of winning.
The common trait used to describe Rautins is that he is the glue. There is no doubt Rautins holds the Orange together on the floor.
Critics have voiced concerns about an increase in turnovers for Rautins. This is simply the result of an increase in touches. His turnovers are sins of aggression and in the long run still have a positive impact. Opposing defenses are forced to be mindful of Rautins and must account for his court vision. Again, this spreads the floor.
Freshman point guard, Brandon Triche has found his niche in the lineup. If nothing else, Triche’s play can be defined as simple. Triche looks to make the easy pass and keep the offense flowing.
In saying that, Triche is the opposite of Flynn, whose place he is taking at point. Last year, with the shot clock winding down, Flynn could be counted on to take the ball to the hole. This meant his teammates were often watching the action instead of being the action.
That is not to suggest that Triche sits back and lets his teammates carry the scoring load. With the floor spread, Triche has shown he get into the paint and finish. He is averaging 10 points a game.
Triche’s willingness to look up the floor in transition has created more space. While Flynn might have been inclined to dribble the ball from foul line to line, Triche regularly rewards teammates, who run the floor, with passes for lay ups.
Jackson and Onuaku have been the primary recipients of the simple passes. The starting front court averages 19 points a game. The two combine for 11 rebounds a game, but their biggest contribution could be their inside presence that opponents can not ignore. Both measure 6’9″. Jackson weighs in at 240; Onuaku tilts the scale at 260. Rivals must keep a body on them in hopes to be successful.
Syracuse loses nothing when they go to the bench. To say Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine fit in, is an understatement. While many players might come off the bench looking to prove they should be in the starting lineup, these two relish their role. Joseph scores 10 and grabs five boards per game. Jardine scores eight and has an assist to turnover ratio of 2.1:1.
As impressive as Syracuse is on the offensive end, it is their commitment to defense that makes the Orange a championship contender. The Orange limit opponents to 37.8 percent from the field (11th in the country). This is due in large part to Syracuse’s defensive transition. The Orange get back well and make opponents shoot over them.
The equation might be difficult to decipher for those outside the Syracuse program. But for Jim Boeheim and his Orange the numbers add up so far. The Orange have truly shown how the whole can be worth more than the sum of the parts.