Saturday, December 08, 2012

2011-12 versus 2009-10

The 2011-2012 season ended painfully, with an Elite Eight loss to Ohio State.  The pain of the loss was not so much the particular game, which in itself was horribly officiated on both ends of the court. No, the pain was watching a tremendously accomplished Syracuse team compete without one of its key players in Fab Melo.  That squad was one of the deepest squads in Syracuse history, but the depth at center was not present.  There was a big drop off between Melo and Baye Keita, and there was no real backup to Keita.

I never wrote a recap on this blog about last season, because it was too difficult to do. It also was eerily similar to two seasons prior, the 2009-2010 season, where an equally great team lost its center, Arinze Onuaku, for the post season. That also cost that team in the post season.

Those two teams were great squads on the hill, both achieving #1 rankings at some point in the season, both winning the Big East regular season, and both earning #1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.  They had different paths to those seeds.  The 2009-10 squad started the season unranked, went 8-2 versus top 25 teams, and climbed to #1 by March 2nd.  The 2011-2012 squad started the year with high expectations with a pre-season rank of #5, and never dropped below that all season, rising to #1 by December 17th.  They would go 6-1 versus top 25 teams.

There is no doubt that the 2011-2012 squad accomplished more. They went 34-3, reached the Elite Eight, and tied the Big East season mark with a 17-1 record. The 2009-2010 squad was impressive at 30-5, reaching the Sweet Sixteen and going 15-3 in the Big East. But you have to acknowledge that last year’s squad accomplished more.

The question I want to propose is which team was better? If the two squads were to meet on the court, who would win?

The 2009-10 squad went seven players deep with no other player appearing in half the games.  This was a team with well-defined roles for all the players, and with a lot of NCAA experience.  There were two fifth-year seniors in Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku, and a fourth-year junior in Wesley Johnson.  Rick Johnson was a junior, Scoop Jardine a third-year sophomore, and Kris Joseph a sophomore.  Brandon Triche was the only inexperienced player as a true freshman.

This squad was extremely proficient at running the half-court offense with Andy Rautins running most of the offense.  Syracuse’s inside-out game was outstanding, with Onuaku and Jackson pounding the ball inside with high precision (67% and 59% respectively).  Johnson and Joseph were extremely adept at driving to the hoop and skying about the rim.  Rautins, Triche and Jardine were all good ball handlers, and because of Rautins’ adeptness at making the three point shot from deep range, teams had to focus on him on the perimeter and on the big men inside. This gave open shots to Triche, Johnson and Jardine, and Syracuse was extremely good at making the three point shot.  Between those four, they made 41% of their three point shots (202 of 498).   

The team had four good free throw shooters in Rautins, Johnson, Jardine and Joseph.  Rautins was extremely good in making 82% of his charity shots.   The team was prone to some careless turnovers from Jardine, and some overly aggressive passing from Rautins.

However, it was the team’s defense that made them a #1 team.  Their ‘Shut It Down’ defense would clamp down on opposing teams, and prevent them from scoring for 5 to 8 minutes of the game.   Onuaku and Jackson were not especially tall, but they were very wide bodied and took up a lot of space along the baseline at 235 lbs and 265 lbs respectively.  Triche (6’4”) and Rautins (6’5”) were tall and rangy up front, preventing easy looks from opposing players inside.  Johnson and Joseph were explosive from the wings intercepting passes and taking off down the court.   The team was not particularly adept at shot blocking, but very good at maintaining its defensive positioning, and good at rebounding.

Let’s go forward two years to the 2011-2012 team.  Syracuse would go 9-10 players deep each game.  A very explosive backcourt with a four man rotation of Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Michael Carter-Williams. It was also a very experience backcourt with Triche a junior (and three year starter), Jardine a fifth-year senior, and Waiters a sophomore.  Jardine and Waiters were very adept at tipping passes and running the fast break, something Syracuse did extremely well. 

Kris Joseph provided the interior offensive game with his drives to the hoop, though the lane was not nearly as clear as he had found it two years prior. Syracuse did not have any great three point shooters, but they had five guys who could make about 35% of their shots in Jardine, Triche, Waiters, Joseph and James Southerland. 

The team was extremely good at shot block and altering shots, led by Fab Melo and his three blocks a game. They were also very adept as a team at stealing the ball, and with the ten man rotation, the players were always fresh; Joseph led the team in minutes played and that was about 32/game.   C.J. Fair did a little bit of everything to make sure the job was getting done.

The team did not run its half-court offense very well.  It relied on the fast break to generate most of its points.  However, the guards were very adept at taking their defenders one-on-one and driving into the paint to make things happen, particularly Waiters and Triche. Waiters was extremely explosive, and Triche very strong.  The team had four good free throw shooters in Triche, Waiters, Joseph and Fair.  It hurt that Jardine struggled at the line, since he played the point, but he would often get removed late in the game to prevent that situation.

The two teams would be an interesting matchup.  Up front would be a tough matchup both ways. Up front you would basically have Rautins/Triche/Jardine versus Waiters/Triche/Jardine.  The latter three would be more adept at driving the lane (particularly Waiters), and in pestering offensive players. The former three would be more adept at preventing players from getting into the lane, and in shooting deep (with Rautins).  I would have to give an edge to last year’s squad up front because of Waiters and the more experienced Triche/Jardine combo.  It would not be a huge edge.

The interior play is where I think the 2009-2010 squad would have a big edge. Wesley Johnson was the  Big East player of the year. He was explosive at getting to the hoop, and could pull outside for three.  Onuaku and Jackson were polished interior scorers, and they knew how to get offensive and defensive rebounds.  Joseph was a better player in 2011-12 than in 2009-10, but he struggled last year without other players to open the lane for him.  Christmas and Melo were very limited offensively (as was Keita); Fair would be the only other scoring threat inside, and he would pick up those garbage points. 


I think the size and experience of Jackson and Onuaku would take a lot of advantage over the inexperience of Christmas and Melo.  It’s true Melo would block some shots, but big body players are often good at avoiding the blocks by creating separation and going strong to the hoop. 

Both teams would be able to run the court, and run it well.  I don’t think fatigue would come into play for the 2009-10 squad, because they played their whole season with only 7 players anyhow.  I think the answers to two questions would determine the outcome.

1st – could last year’s squad limit the second and third chance shots that the 2009-2010 team specialized in with its rebounding?

2nd – could last year’s squad generate enough fast break opportunities to limit its exposure in the half court? 

For those who watched last year’s games, you would know that the team struggled all year to get rebounds, and prevent second chances.  I don’t see how the 2009-2010 squad would be any different, and they would probably get their fair share of second shot opportunities.

And I do not think last year’s team would generate enough fast break opportunities to offset  their half-court liabilities against a team that was ‘Shut It Down’ in the half-court defense. Basically, we would have a team that struggled in the half court set (2011-2012) trying to score against a team that specialized in stopping that exact same thing. 

I think 2009-2010 comes out on top. That’s not a knock on last year’s team. I thought the 2009-2010 team was going to win the National Championship. Their teamwork and unselfishness were outstanding (and much of that carried over to last year’s team).  That 2009-2010’s biggest weakness was they had no player outside of their top seven, and that came back to get them. 

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