Syracuse is back in the Final Four for the first time since Carmelo Anthony led it to the 2003 national title. The intervening decade has seen plenty of talent come through Jim Boeheim’s program, but the Orange haven’t been able to get over the postseason hump and into the national semifinals.
What makes this year’s squad different? The obvious answer is Michael Carter-Williams, and there’s no doubt that the sophomore PG has played a huge role in getting the Orange this far.
Carter-Williams has averaged 12.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game for the season, and it’s hard to ask for much more from a point guard. However, floor leadership hasn’t exactly been a problem for Syracuse teams of the past.
From Billy Edelin to Scoop Jardine, Boeheim’s recent generation of point guards have brought plenty of scoring, passing and even defensive skill to their positions. Even when the Orange were left out of the March Madness field in 2007 and 2008, their point guards (Eric Devendorf and Jonny Flynn, respectively) were two of the best players on the roster.
Similarly, the senior leadership provided by Brandon Triche and James Southerland has been a great asset in the 2013 tourney but also an asset shared by many other Syracuse rosters. Whether it was Jardine and Kris Joseph a year ago or Hakim Warrick and Josh Pace in 2005, Boeheim has routinely had the luxury of tournament-tested seniors to draw on.
For a look at how this year’s Orange have avoided the upsets of seasons past, a good place to start is the turnover column.
In its seven tournament losses since 2003, Syracuse has averaged 17 giveaways. This year’s Orange, in contrast, have actually coughed up the ball less often in the tournament (10.8 times per game) than in the regular season (12.4).
It’s not just a point guard’s stat, either. When Vermont toppled the 2005 Orange in OT, Warrick committed 10 of his team’s 24 turnovers, and other forwards have similarly struggled to hold onto the ball in other years.
With both Florida and Louisville still looming as potential Final Four opponents (as of this writing), avoiding turnovers will be a major part of any chance this year's Orange have of taking home the national title.
Another key asset for the 2012-13 team has been its balanced collection of three-point shooters. Although Syracuse’s national ranking of 86th in three-pointers made may not look like much, it’s a vast improvement over the performance of many of this team’s predecessors.
For one remarkable example, the Gerry McNamara-led 2003-04 squad placed just 288th nationally, with all non-McNamara shooters combining for a mere 36 treys for the entire season.
However, the biggest edge for this year’s Orange has been that a program that’s normally good at offensive rebounding has become great. Keyed by long-armed C.J. Fair, Syracuse tied for eighth in the country with 14.1 offensive boards per game.
No other ‘Cuse squad in the last decade has cracked the top 25 in that category, which is especially key for a team whose perpetual 2-3 zone inevitably surrenders plenty of offensive rebounds for the opposition. A few more second-chance points might have made all the difference in close losses such as 2011’s painful postseason ouster at the hands of 11th-seeded Marquette.
In a Final Four that's sure to be heavy on great half-court defenses, the combination of knocking down treys and rebounding the ones that miss could keep the current Orange offense competitive in games in which it would otherwise get outgunned. Previous Syracuse teams haven't often had the chance to win with defense because the offense sputtered, but this year's squad is in a position to avoid that fate.
No single one of these factors accounts by itself for Carter-Williams and company punching their tickets to Atlanta, but put them together (and add a generous pinch of luck) and they gave 2012-13’s squad an edge that previous Orange teams didn’t have. In the win-or-go-home environment of March Madness, sometimes that little edge is all it takes.