Friday, December 07, 2007

Who Needs a Bench?

Wednesday’s win over Virginia was a good win for the Orange, on many levels. It really does not matter how good or how bad Virginia is, the win was a good one. The young Syracuse squad played on a hostile court in a state other than New York, the ebb and flow of the game was back and forth, and the Orange had to come back and take a lead, and then hold on to it down the stretch. Those are tremendous confidence builders and even though the Orange did make some mistakes down the stretch, it did show a lot about the young men representing Syracuse.

The Orange, who have been a week rebounding team this year, out-rebounded Virginia 39-36. This is the same Cavalier squad that out-rebounded their opponents by an average of 17 points a game this season. My only concern with SU’s rebounding would be that of the 34 live rebounds they got (5 were dead ball), 33 came from the front court. Eric Devendorf had only 1 rebound, and Jonny Flynn none, despite the fact that both played almost the entire game. And, the Orange were playing a 3 point shooting team which typically means more long rebounds. So I think the guards need to pay a little more attention to getting those loose balls.

The Orange also hit 91% of there free throws, 10 for 11. Now that’s a small sampling, but you can’t complain about those results. They also held a good three point shooting Cavalier team (44% from three for the season) to 34.4%. Of course, when the zone is played well, that’s exactly what it does… it tempts teams to take three point shots since they seem so inviting, not realizing that they are further out than normal When the zone is played poorly, those shots are taken much closer and the shooting percentage is much higher.

There is a trend this season that I have not been able to fully grasp yet, but I’ll throw it out there. Jim Boeheim is always known for his short benches, with only a few seasonal aberrations in his 32 years to indicate otherwise. His theory has always been to ride his star players as long as he can. I know I’m in the minority here, but as a fan, I’ve always liked that style.

But typically, in the early season, Boeheim starts with a longer bench, and then shrinks it come Big East time, as he sets his rotation. Much of the off season this year was how deep and young this team was, and that there were going to be a lot of guys getting minutes. Injuries have removed some of those players; Andy Rautins is out for the year and he would have had significant playing time, and Devin Brennan-McBride is battling a shoulder injury (though I doubt he would have many minutes anyways).

At this point in the season, the Syracuse starting five are averaging 174 minutes a game; Donte’ Green 37.2, Devendorf 36.9, Paul Harris 35.8, Arinze Onuaku 32.5, and Jonny Flynn 31.9. To give you some perspective how significant that is, that is the most minutes per game for an Syracuse starting unit since 1982-1983 (the first year I have minutes played for the players). And it’s not even close. The second highest on the list is the 1997-1998 Orangemen with 167 minutes a game.

The 1997-1998 squad was two solid seniors in Todd Burgan and Marius Janulis, and three talented sophomores in Jason Hart, Ryan Blackwell and Etan Thomas. The bench had junior Elvir Ovcina and freshman Allen Griffin who got some playing time. Freshman Eric Williams was disappointing in his efforts, and sophomore LeSean Howard didn't get much time either. The team would go 26-9 and go to the Sweet Sixteen.

Anyhow, I am amazed at how much playing time the starting five are getting, even by Boeheim’s standards. I’m not sure the driving force for that decision, though I can think of a few options.

Close Games: The games have been close, and Boeheim always likes his best starting five on the court when the game is close.

Little foul trouble: These Orangemen have stayed out of foul trouble, with the exception of the most experienced player, Eric Devendorf. And Devendorf plays even when he’s in foul trouble. I had expected Onuaku, Harris and Greene to possibly have foul trouble, but that has not been the case.

Defensive struggles: I think this may be the biggest reason why Boeheim has not changed his lineup as much. The Orange have played poor defense more often than not this season, and I think that he’s trying to get them as much playing time so they can learn through experience. And I think he’s really trying to drive the zone home with them.

Boeheim loves his zone, but he does mix it up with occasional man-to-man and full court presses. Against Virginia, the Orange never pulled out of their zone the whole game. I think Boeheim is trying to send a message to the guys that they had better learn to love it, to live and breath it, because they are going to learn it, whether they like it or not.

Poor Efforts by the Rest: Boeheim has made it clear over the years, that he evaluates players on how they play in practice, and he could care less what a player’s pedigree is before they put on that Orange jersey. They need to show to him that they deserve the minutes in the game. I don’t see the practices, so I don’t know how they are performing. But if the highly taughted Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson aren’t getting the playing minutes, then perhaps their practice efforts haven’t earned it yet.

For whatever reason, the starters are getting a lot of playing time and a lot of experience. The bench players aren’t getting that experience. The ‘experts’ will tell you that will hurt the Orange come post season; you want those bench players to be ready to play if the moment arises when a starter gets in foul trouble or has an injury. I disagree.

I think most college teams shrink their rotations in the post season, start giving more minutes to the stars, and relying less on the bench players. I recall in the 1995-96 tournament how everyone was amazed at how deep the Kentucky Wildcats were, playing 10 guys every game. Yet in the championship game against Syracuse, 3 Wildcat players had more than 35+ minutes of playing time; Rick Pitino hid his bench in that game.

The advantage the Syracuse squads have is come March, the starting five are quite used to player a significant amount of the game. They aren’t going to feel as tired, and when they get tired, they know how to play through it because they’ve been doing it all year. They know they need to stay out of foul trouble, so they learn to play with fouls.

If you have 10 All-Americans on your team, and the 9th player is as good as the 2nd player, then sure… mix them up, spread out the playing time. But if your top 4 are significantly better than your next four, why share the time? I also think you should rotate players if you have guys on the bench who have specific skills that some of your starters don't. If you have a great perimeter shooter on the bench, or a defensive specialist, that makes sense to rotate him in... change things up.

As mentioned earlier, Donte Greene is averaging 37.2 minutes a game. Which Orangemen has the highest average for a season?

It should come as no surprise. In 1990-1991 junior Billy Owens averaged 38.0 minutes a game, carrying the Orangemen through the season. The second highest is Dave Johnson, his senior year in 1991-1992 where he averaged 37.9 minutes a game. Overall, there have been 23 different times a player has averaged 35+ minutes a game (since 1982-1983); this was accomplished by 16 different players. Gerry McNamara is the only Syracuse player to ever average 35+ minutes in each of his four seasons; nobody else has ever done it more than twice. Hakim Warrick is the only player to average 37+ minutes a game for two separate seasons (his junior and senior seasons). And the 2001-2002 Orangemen had three players average 35+ minutes a game: Preston Shumpert, Damone Brown, and Allen Griffin.

We’ll see if December 2007 reduces some of the playing time for the big five this year.

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