@ Syracuse 1/30/2023

I wrote somewhat facetiously on social media that it was hard to find anything to write about this game, in reference to much of the offense coming against the zone, and the first two responses that I got were spot on as two of the larger things I’d earmarked to discuss. That was a cool and rewarding feeling regarding my small but invested and perceptive audience. You all rock!

These games ARE always anomalies in terms of how they play out given Syracuse’s unique (for college, ubiquitous around your local middle school YMCA games) defensive style; but there’s always stuff to discuss! Today, I’ll focus mostly on defense: our increasing trouble handling quality bigs, and trouble defending the drive and pull-up game along with talking about a cool way we attacked their zone adjustments and touching quickly on “winning plays.” Let’s get into it!

Like: Clutch Plays!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t circle back to Jayden Gardner in this one after highlighting him previously in my past two pieces. He started to heat up in the B.C. game, but that was against an inferior opponent in a comfortable game that we would have handled either way. Encouragingly, though, he carried that momentum into this one, scoring 17 points on an efficient 5-7 shooting, finding soft spots in the zone, attacking from the short corner, and having one of his better rebounding performances (especially crashing the offensive glass), netting 8 – three above his yearly average. There were a couple of sequences I’m not featuring in this one where he and Ryan Dunn really attacked the offensive boards, kept plays alive, and brought energy, at one point Gardner even just ripping a rebound directly away from Edwards. This was a game that we would have lost without him. He did not have a very good defensive game, nor did anyone in our frontcourt which I’ll talk about later, but he DID have the biggest defensive play of the game down the stretch after CTB put him as the primary defender on Jesse Edwards, who gave us fits all night long, using his mobility and savvy. I’ll show that one in a second but it should also be mentioned that he forced a travel against Edwards under the three minute mark, as well.

In general, the team did not play very well as a whole. The defense wasn’t what CTB would have hoped for and there weren’t as many open looks against the zone as we’ve grown accustomed. I’ll talk about all of that later, but what the team did show was the ability to rise to the moment down the stretch and make, not only clutch shots, but also great mental plays to pull out a tough game on the road. Sometimes, I think people over-emphasize this concept of “winning basketball” when a player doesn’t necessarily have a huge statistical impact to just mean that a player was on a team that won, often because they’re surrounded by a lot of talented players. But there is a reality to a team that is experienced enough and aware enough to adapt to the moment. Here’s what I mean across, in my opinion, the three biggest plays from Monday night.

In the press conference when one of the reporters asked about Jayden, CTB answered, but then pivoted to highlight this play below from Ben Vander Plas. He drives to the hoop, misses the shot, re-establishes both of his feet from out of bounds before touching the loose ball, and then sends it back out to Franklin who swings it over to Clark for the open, clutch, three-pointer.

Magical Awareness

Now, firstly, I’m not sure why there was any controversy over this play. When a player’s momentum takes them out of bounds, chasing after a loose ball or, in this case, after taking a shot, they may again touch the ball after establishing their feet back inbounds. That’s exactly what BVP did, and the awareness to take the time to do it prior to responding to the instinct to go right after that ball was a great example of a “winning” but very savvy play. Additional kudos to Franklin for the swing and Clark for the ice water in his veins.

On to Gardner. Here’s the charge. Yes, it was a charge and it wasn’t a flop. Players taking charges go down more easily than they might normally otherwise all of the time; flopping is when you throw yourself to the ground where the contact wouldn’t have otherwise done that. Any time a player gets that low and drives their shoulder into the chest of another in legal guarding position, knocking them straight backward, that’s a charge. Gardner was well overmatched size wise, but used his quickness to create an advantage. It was alert, and also fouled Edwards out of the game. Huge.

And then, the very next possession, we have this clip below to practically seal the game. I thought it was interesting in this play how all of Gardner, BVP, and Clark rotated through taking the high post and looking for the ball. Historically, we normally have one player who hangs out there, but the fact that it was all three not only made Syracuse have to track them, but pretty quickly evaluate what any would have been trying to do when they got it. BVP eventually gets the ball and throws a challenging pass out to Franklin who grabs it and resets to Clark. Gardner, on the other hand, was looking to score as soon as he got it from there. This is confidence and wanting the shot, while also creating it for himself off of the bounce. Great, clutch, stuff.

Its sequences like these above down the stretch of a game that give me more calm than normal when we’re in close games. They flashed this often earlier in the year, especially in Vegas, and they’ve shown it more recently, as well. If we think of some of the closer games last year, St. Bonaventure springs to mind, our “need a bucket” plays too often relied on Kihei just trying to make something happen. Now, it feels like we have a bunch of guys ready for the moment.

Like: Troubleshooting The Zone

The key to beating the 2-3 zone is always at the high post. Historically, we’ve run a lot of different types of players there, especially using the Point Guard position since Ty Jerome and onward. Remember this adjustment where they started putting Jerome in the high post only to have him back out to the three-point line, drawing the center and creating a vacuum inside? Vintage CTB adjustments.

Recently, this role has most been played by Kihei Clark, of all people, along with some Reece Beekman. They’ve had success catching the ball in the high post and then looking to distribute from there, with easier passes as the zone has had to adjust to them having the ball in the lane.

To counter this, Syracuse was making a very clear effort to make the pass to the high post very difficult, especially when it was one of the point guards. They were sagging the top two defenders back, and pressuring the entry pass from behind, like this:

They’re rotating BVP and Gardner though on this possession and it looks like Gardner has some space and IMK tries to slip him the ball, but Judah Mintz compresses down from the top to deflect the pass and cause the turnover. There were other turnovers on entry passes and also situations where Clark or Beekman would catch a pass but it wouldn’t be clean or they’d be aggressively driven off the spot and have to regroup by pulling the ball out to the perimeter again.

So, with this attention on the high post, and Syracuse’s back line extending so far forward in an attempt to deny so much access, out back line roamer was open more often with more freedom of movement.

Rather than getting the ball into the high post as often, we found a lot of success bypassing that look and passing directly from the top of the three-point line into the short corner, like here:


And here:


And here:

Not a travel

These plays are all so similar, with BVP getting the ball where he has to be respected outside of the three-point line and zipping a pass behind the zone to Gardner, who capitalizes quickly on the opportunity. Beneficial that he had gotten his midrange game going as a lot of these opportunities needed to be capitalized on exactly where they were caught, unique to his skillset and a pass that was easier for BVP to make. Notice how on all of these every single Syracuse defender is extended up past Gardner and has their back to him prior to the pass being thrown. This means that the ball is already in the air before they even begin to try to locate him, allowing for time and advantage when he collects the pass.

Conversely, when Shedrick or Dunn were in, Clark was able to take advantage of this dynamic with lobs, here:

And here (the very next play):

And here:

Lob City

These are harder passes to throw so, unfortunately, we only saw Clark executing them (IMK tried once and it didn’t go well), but easier shots to finish with either of our athletic bigs on the floor. Notice, again, all three came from the top of the three-point line, Edwards pressed up on the high-post, and waiting for Brown to extend to the wing to deny the three-point shooters.

I love the chess match between Boeheim and Bennett when it comes to tweaks he puts in with the zone and then how we attempt to counter. In this one, with them extending their backline so aggressively to try to negate our passing and shooting, we did a good job often just bypassing that by throwing passes past both levels of their defense to the baseline. If we play Syracuse again this year, in the ACC Tournament for example, it will be interesting to see how much they’re willing to keep living with these looks vs. how productive they felt it was limiting our outside shooting (which it was fairly effective).

Dislike: Post Defense

The win was quality and I was happy with how we responded to adversity, but defense was problematic at best in this one. The first and most pressing issue was our post defense on the 6’11”, long, athletic, and greatly improved, Jesse Edwards. Edwards had 14 points and 3 assists but that undersells his impact on this game. Much of the Syracuse offense, especially in the second half, was run through him, drawing a double team (or not), and then either making a play himself or making a good pass to create opportunity. To our credit, we pretty much tried everything we could against him but, concerningly, none of it worked very well (big charge at the end, notwithstanding). Let’s take a look at how this progressed.

We started the game with our more recent starting five, with Gardner at the 4 and BVP at the 5 and opened trying to send an aggressive double team toward Edwards. In this first clip we see just that with Gardner leaving to double. He and BVP push Edwards off of the block, but he easily passes out of it, the ball is rotated back to the opposite wing and the ball is swung back to Gardner’s man, Maliq Brown. Gardner was actually in pretty good position to recover and defend this, but leaves way too much of a driving lane toward the baseline on his recovery and concedes the blowby dribble and the easy layup. This is really bad recovery defense from Gardner but, even with improvements there, we can see some other concerns on this one. Prior to the rotations, Clark was left trying to front the 6’8″ Brown, and then tasked to recovering to his man outside of the three-point line. He did a really good job on this play of doing both, but I’ve documented in the past how putting him in this kind of defensive position can lead to issues and you can see how Edwards likely could have just thrown the ball up to Brown instead of swinging it out first. Just a tough position for our defensive personnel to navigate.

Not long later, it’s the same thing but through screening action, BVP hedging, and Gardner recovering for the double, this time Edwards finds a much more open Brown wide open under the rim for the easy dunk. Clark is, again, put in the same position of playing that help side decision maker and appears to decide the pass is going outside, leaving Brown completely alone and starting out toward his man on the outside. Again, yes his read here is incorrect but I’m not sure it would make much of a difference because he’s just in a really challenging situation having to try to help on such a bigger player when Edwards also has clearer lines of sight/passing lanes from his size advantage over BVP and Gardner.

Again, these are just a sample of clips to give a taste for how the game unfolded, and on some plays we handled it better than others, but it was a constant challenge and one where we were pretty consistently put in situations of disadvantage.

Now, you might expect if you’ve been reading my stuff, here is where I was calling to put Shedrick in to defend Edwards one-on-one. We did and, in the first half, it was effective. We did not have to double out of it, Syracuse mostly stopped going to the matchup, and when they did, we got some of this where Shedrick was able to play physically with Edwards and use his length to affect his shot, in this case forcing a miss:

Not needing a double team was big, and forcing Syracuse to find other ways to initiate their offense was valuable. The problem in the first half was, the two lobs I showed earlier being the exception, Shedrick was not a big threat to score against that zone the way it was being played. In the past, he’s been an effective option on the baseline with the ball in the high post as a finisher around the rim. But here, with the ball staying on the perimeter more, he was mostly an option for lobs or, in the rare instance where we were able to get some penetration from the perimeter, as an option there. I think CTB wanted to go to him and rely on him more in the second half, as we’ll talk about later, but that half was a different story. Here, he did well defensively in the first half, but we still needed to play the Gardner/BVP lineup (which I just said was not a complimentary one in my last piece but was much more so against the zone) in yet another example of CTB being willing to trade defense for offense. This is the same reason we saw Ryan Dunn’s minutes dip from recent season highs to 8 in this game.

We closed the first half with Small Ball and opened the second half with the same. During this period, we tried going away from the double team, given the issues it was causing earlier, and BVP began to defend Edwards straight up. This also did not work very well. In the clip below, we see Edwards simply collect the ball, utilize his size, and make a strong post move finishing over BVP for the and-1.

In this clip below, it’s the same matchup. Syracuse gets the ball to Edwards on the wing, clears out to allow for isolation, and this time he uses his strength and first step to blowby BVP, over power him, and go up for the strong two-handed finish at the rim. It became clear that leaving BVP one-on-one to play behind Edwards would not be a viable option. It became clear that leaving BVP one-on-one to play behind Edwards would not be a viable option.

This next clip shows yet another adjustment, away from the one-on-one and back to double teaming with Gardner. It’s really a fascinating game to analyze because CTB really through the kitchen sink at this and you can see all of the tinkering/brainstorming happening in real time. Here the double team is initially successful and they force Edwards to dribble out of it and then pick up his dribble. Gardner recovers effectively, it was a successful defensive effort. But, with that side of the floor open, Syracuse just initiates a two-man pick and roll game, forcing BVP to hedge to stop the ball handler, and Edwards just dives to the rim with an easy lob dunk. This is what we used to see Kihei and Kadin do in Sides a lot.

Here we are in the second half now and it appears that one of the half time adjustments they made was to try to be much more aggressive about fronting Edwards and attempting to deny him the ball at all. BVP does an admirable job with this, keeping Edwards from getting the ball and forcing him to reposition himself multiple times throughout the beginning of the play. Eventually, though, Syracuse still gets him the ball in the post, we immediately send Gardner on the double team, and Edwards fires off such a quick pass to the cutting Brown that Franklin can’t help in time. Brown draws the shooting foul.

Fronting can certainly disrupt the flow of an offense and if they’re being non-discriminatory around where their offense starts, then it can be an effective way of taking a post player out of the game. The team will just take the path of least resistance elsewhere. But, in the case of this game, Syracuse didn’t take the bait. They continued to force the ball inside and worked to get around the front.

Another look at it below with the front attempt (this one not as aggressive or intentional) and double team from Gardner. This time Edwards finds an open shooter on the opposite three-point line that Franklin can’t recover to in time. Not only was Edwards’s passing and decision making great in this one, but it was made all the easier by him being able to look over both men in the double team when surveying the court.

Now, CTB brings Shedrick back out to defend and this time it doesn’t go nearly as well. Shedrick has drawn quite a lot of criticism for his foul rate over the years as a big reason for keeping him off of the court. By and large, I do not agree that’s been the big reason he’s been kept off of the court this season. He’s improved in the hedge (where he previously conceded a lot of fouls) and a lot of it comes with the territory of often being the lone rim protector on the court with multiple other players who often need that assistance. His recent run of sitting, really since the beginning of 2023, has not often coincided with foul trouble and has much more often coincided with a mistake or something happening on the court (in some cases the preference for offense). That’s not to say he still hasn’t conceded some fouls he shouldn’t over the year, just to say I don’t agree that it’s been the reason for this disconnect in PT.

On Monday, though, it very much WAS the reason that he got pulled from the game. CTB clearly wanted to be able to turn to him, especially when we had bigger leads in the second half, as evidenced by him being put BACK into a close game with under 6 minutes left, but Shedrick was over-aggressive with his shot contests and sent players to the line unnecessarily.

In the clip below, we see Shedrick one-on-one defending Edwards, attempting to front the post. Just like with BVP, Syracuse makes a concerted effort to get Edwards the ball, who uses the positioning to go to the hoop. Shedrick IS able to use his size and length to contest and bother the shot, though, forcing a miss. When thinking about how all of this works together, please make note of how much better THIS part of the defense is (and what we saw in the first half) than what we’d been seeing. BVP then is unable to secure the rebound vs. Brown, and the ball is deflected away from the hoop, which Edwards runs down and collects. He turns that into an immediate pick and roll with Bell, and Shedrick is there in really good position to contest the three-pointer… but he contests WAY too hard, jumps into the body of Bell, and fouls a three-point shooter. You can’t do that, especially considering how impactful his contest would have been. Simply jump less aggressively, don’t try to actually block it but bother it, and then turn and crash the glass. This would have been a good defensive possession with that adjustment.

Not much later, Edwards gets the ball isolated on Shedrick one-on-one again, and THIS time is both successful scoring with a strong post move and draws the foul as well. Now, I don’t think this was actually a foul, especially considering what Dunn encountered under the rim. Nor do I think the success rate of this would have been what we saw throughout the game with more repetitions of this matchup (we saw as much in the first half) but the point remains – if you’re CTB and these are the outcomes you’re getting when Shedrick is in on defense, you have turn back to BVP and Gardner because at least you have the potential to counter their offense with your own.

And turn back he did. This time, shifting to Gardner as the primary defender, fronting the ball, with BVP helping on the double team. And here, in this clip below, you’ll see Gardner attempting to front and Syracuse punishing with the lob dunk. Recall how when BVP and Shedrick fronted, Edwards worked to reposition, get in front, and collect the ball in the post. With Gardner attempting to front, he’s exclusively trying to set up the lob the entire possession, and it worked.

Scrap that plan. Eventually they would go back to Gardner as the primary defender but without aggressively fronting, but first, CTB tried to go to Shedrick again. In this play below, Syracuse once again goes back to Edwards to challenge the post. BVP double teams late which, if you have Shedrick in the game, I don’t like the decision to double team, but it’s another variable they were trying. That being said, it does work. They get Edwards to take a difficult, contested shot through the double team (that missed) but rather than contesting straight up, Shedrick follows through on his shot block attempt and extends into Edwards’s body, a foul every time. Just like with the three-point attempt, this is where he needs to show discipline, be a little less aggressive with his shot block attempts, contest, and box out.

Interestingly enough, the play above did not send him to the bench. It was after the following play (not on post defense but, bonus content) where he’s in good offensive rebounding position but Brown reacts more quickly to the light glance off of the rim and goes up to get the rebound over him.

I’ve been outspoken about the short leash Shedrick has been given this year (against Miami, against Pitt, and how badly his minutes were slashed after UNC) and how I think the value he brings overall outweighs some of the mistakes. And, I still feel that’s true holistically. If anything, this game highlights how important it is for us to find a better solution on defense for quality opposing big men. It should be clear that Shedrick needs to be a big part of that solution for us to reach our ceiling, and you could see glances of it in the first half of this game, and very much so against B.C.’s Quinten Post. But, especially against the way Syracuse was playing their zone on Monday, and especially since the change of the core man-to-man offense to the Triangle, he can’t play like he did in the second half against Syracuse and get time.

It appears to me, that he’s playing cautiously on offense so as not to make a mistake that might pull him out, and he’s playing very aggressively on defense to try to make splash plays, big blocks, etc. If it were me, I’d recommend the other way around. Play aggressively on offense; make an aggressive post move on the block in man-to-man, crash the glass with reckless abandon in an attempt to get tips, deflections, put backs… second opportunities. On defense, play with just a little more restraint. Go straight up and box out. Contest but don’t try overly hard to block jump shooters. Don’t take himself out of plays.

Anyway, thus concludes the review of our post defense this game. In the end, we did enough to win despite it, but this appears to be a significant area of vulnerability moving forward until we can figure out a better way to handle it or until Shedrick can stay on the floor for longer stretches. Additionally, the zone did limit Dunn’s playing time as well, so that should help – but he also ran into similar issues in this game and was not a defensive answer to a player like Edwards.

Conceding the Pull-Up

The other concerning issue defensively from the game was Syracuse’s ability, primarily through Judah Mintz but also through others, to get into the lane and finish in the mid-range. I’m certainly not as worried about this as I am about the post defense, both due to sample size and, again, because Syracuse’s zone limited the number of minutes we could play Dunn, who can often be a solution on the ball or helping to help and contest shots. That being said, this is normally where the opposition targets Kihei, working to force their way close to the hoop and shoot over him, and that happened a few times on Monday, but really, this time it was an issue across our guards, surprisingly (and especially) against Reece. I’m not sure exactly what it was, perhaps the short rest, perhaps he just had a bad game defensively, perhaps the Syracuse backcourt just rose to the occasion, but he certainly looked a step slow and the least healthy we’ve seen him look in a while. Here are a couple of clips illustrating what I’m talking about that don’t involve Kihei.

This is the Orange’s first bucket of the game and the thing that struck me about it is how easy it looked. Girard goes to run a screen on Beekman but doesn’t even really get him, and Mintz just turns the corner on him. BVP attempts to step up, but Mintz hits a little floater in the lane over him.

This next clip below you just don’t see very often. Mintz isolates Beekman, drives him into the lane, turns and just shoots the mid-range shot over the top of him.

A thing of confusion

This next clip is Mintz doing much of the same over Franklin. He just works him into the lane, gets his back to him, and then shoots over him. Kadin’s on the floor here, so it’s not like it’s even reasonable to say a shot blocker would help here. Mintz doesn’t take it in far enough to bring the shot blockers into play and, anyway, they’re pulled to stay near Edwards.

I’d have been willing to just chalk this up to Mintz being on fire and playing a good game, but Girard did this several times against Clark, and we also have this last clip; and end of the half isolation play for Symir Torrence with Reece Beekman guarding him. The presented screen by Edwards doesn’t materialize. Torrence literally just blows by Reece, beats him to the hoop, and this time hits the finger roll closer to the bucket with BVP and Gardner on the floor.

What in the world?

Now, having watched the past year and last year, seeing a team continually attempt this on Clark, or even having a player with a slight size advantage try this on Franklin wouldn’t have been overly attention grabbing. I can’t, for the life of me, remember a player, let alone a couple, go at Reece like this and have significant success. Beekman was on him most of the game and Mintz finished with 20 points on 8 for 13 shooting. Practically unheard of. A couple of thoughts, then. For one, is the injury still playing a bigger role than we realize? But, additionally, with us having to spend so much effort and energy on Edwards and with them consistently flattening two bigs to both blocks, this whole part of the lane was wide open for one-on-one basketball which Syracuse used to go after every single one of our starting guards (I actually didn’t see them target IMK much) with success.

For now, this happening to this extreme is an n of 1. There was a bit of a perfect storm of Small Ball struggling to defend the post and be able to help elsewhere, a good game plan to create space, limited rest, and the skillset of Syracuse’s guards to be aligned with this kind of play and finishing. But it was jarring enough to take note of and to keep an eye on. Once again, we continue to press on to a possibility that we’re going to just have to play better offense than our opposition to win some nights. This was one of those.

Blog Note:

I’ll be travelling again over the weekend and won’t be able to do a recap for Virginia Tech. I’ll certainly be trying to stay caught up on it abroad, though! Let’s get that sweep. Will resume with another Cut for the N.C. State game.

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