Syracuse Orange Excel Defensively for the First Time in Years

Jameson FlemingSenior Writer INovember 11, 2009

NEW YORK - MARCH 14: Andy Rautins #1 of the Syracuse Orange shoots a three against the Louisville Cardinals during the championship game of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 14, 2009 in New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

You can't see past them. You can't get around them. You can't shoot over them.

"Them," of course, refers to the Syracuse Orange defense that has smothered its first two opponents into submission. The defense has had two of its best games in terms of efficiency since Ken Pomeroy began keeping track in 2004.

The Syracuse defense put up an astounding 53.1 defensive rating (.531 points per possession) against Albany and approximately a 67.7 Wednesday against Robert Morris (official numbers will come in overnight).

Those numbers are remarkable . Maybe not for programs like Memphis, Kansas, and Louisville known for their defense, but certainly for a team like Syracuse, who hasn't been a superior defensive team since 2005.

That's finally changing this season because of the incredible length Syracuse has from players one through 10 on the depth chart.

Naturally, Syracuse was bound to have a size advantage against Albany and Robert Morris, but this reshaped roster is teaming with length that should put the Orange near the top of the country in relative height.

Size doesn't always mean success when playing a man-to-man defense, and the same goes for the 2-3 zone, but in the zone, length and athleticism decreases the gaps and shooting lanes.

With a frontline that features 6'9'' Arinze Onuaku in the center with 6'10'' Rick Jackson and 6'7'' Wesley Johnson on the wings, players don't have room to maneuver near the basket.

Repeatedly in the first two games of the season, opponents would take the ball baseline. In years past, SU wings struggled at closing out the baseline, allowing the opposition to take the ball one-on-one to the basket with only the center to defend. That development allows another play to slip through the lane for an easy pass and bucket.

This year, Rick Jackson, Wesley Johnson, and Kris Joesph—the first forward off the bench—have closed out the baseline extremely well. This has allowed Onuaku to double the ball on the baseline which leads to disastrous results for the offense. 

This adjustment, as well as more actively interrupting the passing lanes has forced 60 turnovers in the first two games (32 for Albany, 28 for Robert Morris).

To put that into perspective, Syracuse has forced a turnover on 36 percent of its defensive possessions. In 2009, that number was 18.8 percent and the 'Cuse hasn't pushed 20 percent since 2006.

The Orange has also been able to extend the 2-3 zone because Andy Rautins, Scoop Jardine, and Brandon Triche have been more active on the perimeter, but also have great size for guards. Numerous times during the first two games, they've deflected passes thrown over their heads. That rarely ever happened with last year's backcourt of Eric Devendorf and Jonny Flynn.

The most promising sign for the Orange is probably the fact that Robert Morris is the kind of mid-major that usually gives Syracuse fits. Throughout the last handful of years, the 'Cuse has struggled to blow out mid-majors because the 2-3 zone typically allows good shooting teams to stay in the game.

The Colonials' offense revolves around the three-pointer and when they played the Orange in 2008 in the NIT, they drilled 16 three-pointers in a six point loss.

Wednesday night, Syracuse forced RMU into an abysmal shooting performance—not only from behind the arc (6 of 23), but everywhere else as well (22 of 62).

With a California team that led the nation in three point shooting last season looming in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic next week, Syracuse might finally have a way to protect its once vulnerable Achilles heel.

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