The 2013-2014 version of the Syracuse Orange was not supposed to be a #1 team. Nobody thought that. To be sure, some Syracuse fans naively bemoan AP voters and bracketology projections. But those are the same kids (either in age or maturity) that tempt karma by trolling other programs. Anyone who has been around a while could sense that this team was “capable of winning a Final Four,” but only because the rest of college basketball was not that good. This team was not ready, compared to prior iterations, and never was. The offense never gelled. Why? A dearth of assists.
From Day 1, this team was far too CJ Fair focused. Fair had 506 shots…. 27% of the team’s total. While Fair had a similar 462 shots last year, this was a mere 20.1% of the shots. And the distance of those shots increased also–if you watched the games, you saw it. Or just look at the field goal percentage for Fair, which dropped from 47% to 43%. The extra 23 three-pointers, with six fewer makes, did not help that cause either. Way too much CJ Fair. It was apparent watching the team, it is apparent statistically.
The secondary problem with this is that CJ Fair’s game did not have a passing component to it. As Fair stepped back from the paint to develop his shot, it was at the expense of everything else. Rebounds dropped from 278 to 219. There were 14 more assists, but 22 more turnovers. As he tried to become more of a “3,” he lost the “4” aspect of his game–the close shots. Sure, there were games when he was outstanding. But Fair taking jump shots is not his strength, nor was it good for the team’s overall offensive philosophy.
The biggest issue, however, was the lack of a team concept. Yes, there was ample passing around the perimeter. But it was usually to get the ball to someone that would eventually make a play himself in an isolation context. Indeed, the team assist totals were embarrassing. And don’t just blame it on the FG%–the 2013-2014 team shot 43.7%, compared to 43.9% in 2012-2013. There were a lot of offensive rebounds this past year, but 100+ fewer than the year before.
But look at these assist totals recently, starting with last year: 563, 565, 566, 673, 687, 578, 522, 541, 525, 465, 523, and 551.
This past year? 402. That is a about 2 assists less per game than the worst season in the past 13 years. For the past six years, Syracuse has averaged 605 assists per season. Regardless of ANY factual difference, that it simply way too few assists.
In fact, Syracuse was 186th in assists, and 241th in assists per game. The assist/turnover ratio was great… in the top 50. Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney made good decisions when passing the ball in terms of not putting it into the opponents hands or the bleachers. But this statistic does not include failing to feed someone for a high-percentage shot. It also does not include the subsequent ill-advised jumper as the shot clock winds down as a turnover.
Assists are a rough stat, but the season-long totals do not mask what anyone watching the team could observe. A lot of passing around the perimeter, and not much passing to get someone open down low.
For all the talk of Cooney’s shooting, he needs to become a better playmaker from a passing standpoint. His shooting will improve over time. He needs to make other players better by getting them the ball for an easy bucket from time-to-time also. Better shooting will help, but getting better shots will help even more. The more high-percentage shots, the better. That will lead to both scores and assists. Cooney needs more production here.
As Syracuse heads into 2014-2015, the team really needs to take a look at its team concept. Few teams survive deep into March without sharing the ball a heck of a lot more than the Syracuse team did in 2013-2014.