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The Undefeated: Syracuse

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Lacrossezilla. via <a href="http://blog.syracuse.com/today/2009/03/large_Miller_Jovan.jpg">blog.syracuse.com</a>
Lacrossezilla. via blog.syracuse.com

There are currently four undefeated schools in Division I: Hofstra (5-0), Notre Dame (4-0), Syracuse (5-0), and Yale (4-0). Let's pick apart each one because, well, it's more fun than talking about why Wagner is absolutely miserable year-in and year-out.

Part I: Hofstra | Part II: Notre Dame | Part III: Yale 

Syracuse's reputation -- reckless speed and pure finesse -- is a bit of a deviation from reality.  To be clear: The Orange's reputation is built on a history of such qualities, and the Carrier Domers do show flashes of that style from time to time.  The reality of the situation, though, is this: Syracuse is quick, but is rolling an offense of workman-like, volume-based power with players of tremendous skill; the anchor of the team, though, is the Orange's defense, a unit that must succeed in order for Syracuse to prevail.

With that said, the 2011 iteration of Syracuse men's lacrosse is poised to take care of a lot of business this season.  The Orange is unbeaten, hardened steel against the fire of a schedule constituting the fourth most-difficult in the country up to this point (for contextual purposes, this refers to opponent efficiency margin).  This may not be the best team that Syracuse has put on the grass, but it has the potential to hoist the program's 12th (or 11th, if you have an unfounded respect for the NCAA) national championship trophy.

Let's break Syracuse down: How they've stayed unbeaten, where their weaknesses are, and where's the first potential loss.

UNDEFEATED: SYRACUSE'S BLUEPRINT

There's nothing that instantly jumps from the page when looking at Syracuse from a numbers perspective.  The Orange is 16th in adjusted offensive efficiency (32.43 goals per 100 possessions) and 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency (21.97); in totem, Syracuse is ninth in adjusted efficiency margin (10.46).  Those are fine values, but not "DEFINITELY PLAYING ON MEMORIAL MONDAY, BABYCAKES!" figures.

There are some other indicators, however, that are showing why the Orange is keeping a clean sheet.  Let's start defensively.  First, Syracuse is not yielding a bunch of shots on the defensive end (only about .88 shots per defensive possession, good for 13th in the country).  The defense also isn't getting caught watching the ball or putting itself in poor slide scenarios as the Orange is 10th nationally in defensive assist rate (.11).  What does that tell me?  Well:

  • Lade, White, & Company aren't getting beat by their men or the ball.  Under Leland Rodgers, Syracuse has adopted a man-to-man scheme that has allowed defenders to crowd opponents, keeping their hands in tight and not allowing shooters to set their feet.  There's great help coming from the crease on the slide and opponents are forced to hold out for good shots rather than taking the first open shot.  This, consequently, has lessened the load on John Galloway.
  • The second point is a little more subtle.  If opposing offenses aren't shooting much, and Syracuse isn't yielding very many goals per possession, what's happening on defense?  Turnovers; specifically, takeaways, giveaways, or offensive infractions.  That's what you love to see out of a disciplined and aggressive defense that can turn defense into offense in a quick and efficient manner.

Speaking of turning defense into offense, the last metric that really stands out as contributing to Syracuse's success is the team's offensive clearing rate.  The Orange is currently sixth in clearing percentage (89.91%) and it is having a large impact on Syracuse's style:

  • With the efficiency of the team's clearing rate, Syracuse is able to up its "pace." The Orange are the 11th fastest team in the country (75.80 possessions per game) due in no small part to Kevin Drew and Joel White.  These transition opportunities not only create unsettled and advantageous scoring chances for the Orange's offense (which needs it given the amount of zone defense it has been forced to deal with), but it also robs opponents of additional offensive possession opportunities.
  • Let's dovetail that last point: Why are additional offensive opportunities important for Syracuse? To the point: Syracuse is running a volume-based offense.  The team is currently seventh nationally in offensive possessions per game (40.4) and is getting five more offensive possessions a game than their opponents.  As the Orange isn't the most spectacular offensive team in the land (more on this in a minute), Syracuse needs these additional possessions to try and bury the bean. Clearing at a high clip greatly increases the chances for this to occur.

WEAK SPOTS: SHOOTING (JUST LIKE IN 2010)

The obvious area of concern when thinking about Syracuse is its performance (or lack thereof) in extra man opportunities.  Any way that you cut it -- extra man opportunity conversion rate (21.74%), extra man opportunity rate (.025) , extra man opportunity reliance (.079) -- puts Syracuse in the bottom 10 or 15 in the country.  So, that's a huge area of concern, but not the biggest.  The reason for this stems from Syracuse's extra man opportunity reliance value: If the Orange isn't scoring on the man-up, they're scoring in even scenarios.  Importantly, then, it's wothwhile to understand that there are warts in non-personnel imbalance scenarios that are a) impacting the team's extra-man performance, and b) may spell doom for Syracuse in standard personnel situations.

I'm looking at three things: shots per possession, assist rate, and effective shooting percentage.  Here's why there should be concern:

  • Oddly, Syracuse isn't really peppering the cage with the bean (the Orange is only 28th in shots per offensive possession (.995). Weird.  Syracuse has always filled up that portion of the stat sheet, and it's not like the Orange don't have a bunch of guys that like to rip it. Seeing a bunch of zone defenses has certainly diminished this statistic, but it's troublesome because I don't think that Syracuse is taking a bunch of great shots.
  • About that great shot comment.  Look at Syracuse's assist rate: .153 (31st nationally).  Packed-in defenses are hurting the Orange's ability to help each other, which, in turn, is mitigating the team's ability to take shots from preferred locations.  This also tells me that Syracuse is relying on Marasco and Desko and whoever else to score on individual efforts.  The Orange has enough talent to beat teams one-on-one, but Syracuse can't rely on that because it isn't a great shooting team.
  • About that "isn't a great shooting team" comment.  Syracuse's effective shooting percentage bears this out: 31.76% (18th nationally).  Good, but not great.  Certainly better than 2010, but nothing near some of the marksmanship other schools have shown.  There are two factors that are greatly diminishing this stat (the number of zone defenses the Orange has faced and Syracuse's rate in extra man opportunities), but the baseline principle remains: Syracuse should be shooting better considering the fact that it has faced the 26th most-difficult schedule in terms of opponent defenses.  If Syracuse stumbles, it'll be because the team didn't shoot well in any of the ridiculous number of offensive possessions the Orange has earned.

FIRST POTENTIAL LOSS

If I say "against Johns Hopkins" I will probably get lynched, especially as Syracuse gets the Blue Jays in the Carrier Dome.  Accordingly, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the first legitimate opportunity for someone to knock off the Orange is Villanova on March 26th.  The reasons for this are much the same as I mentioned in the Notre Dame piece linked above: The 'Cats are sneaky efficient on offense and may have enough defense to stymie the Orange.