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Revisiting the Syracuse Face-Off Talking Point

The sport is "lacrosse," not "face-off."

Drew Hallowell

This is the last thing that I'm going to write about Syracuse and face-off play this season. I'm done with it. It's such a dumb conversation that it makes blood leak out of my ears as I attempt to liberate my intestines from my torso in order to feel something. Everything that is written or tweeted about Syracuse now -- whether in The Post-Standard or The Daily Orange or wherever -- must -- according to some unknown law that I am hell-bent on having repealed -- include words about the Orange's face-off play as it was the only reason that Syracuse won or lost a game. I don't know how many times I can write that face-off play is overblown in terms of its correlation to winning, and yet people look at this . . .

METRIC VALUE (2013) NT'L RANK (2013) VALUE (2014) NT'L RANK (2014)
Face-off Percentage 42.02% 55 40.16% 56
Percentage of Offensive Opportunities from Face-off Wins 30.91% 51 32.47% 51
Offensive Opportunities per 60 Minutes Margin -1.39 40 -2.55 49

. . . and believe that is the sole reason that Syracuse earned whatever result ultimately inured to the Orange. This is ridiculous. I honestly want to burn live humans in fire until this nonsense recedes to its appropriate place in conversation: A topic, but not the only one.

I'm going to write this as clearly as possible: How teams perform in run-of-play situations (basically, any situation that isn't a face-off posture) is more important than how a team takes draws. This isn't to imply that face-off play isn't important, but how a team executes -- in the offensive or defensive end of the field -- when possession is established is more important than who wins a groundball in a face-off situation. This is true for two reasons: (1) Face-offs are a dependent activity as a team needs to score or to yield a goal in order for more than four face-offs to occur in a game (save for the limited possibility of a 0-0 game going into 10,000 overtimes); and (2) While face-offs create opportunities (offensive and defensive), teams must still maximize that opportunity and either score or stop the opposition from scoring (this is why a scoreboard exists). Face-off play can impact how a team executes, but execution at the offensive and defensive ends of the field is still the primary reason teams win or lose.

To illustrate this position, I'm going to consider two permutations:

  • Permutation I: Syracuse draws at the 2014 national average (49.92 percent) and maintains the same adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies as it did drawing at 40.16 percent.
  • Permutation II: Syracuse draws at the 2014 national average (49.92 percent), maintains the same adjusted offensive efficiency value it has generated through 2014, but holds an adjusted defensive efficiency consistent with its defensive effort in 2013.
  • Permutation III: Syracuse draws at its current rate (40.16 percent), maintains the same adjusted offensive efficiency value it has generated through 2014, but holds an adjusted defensive efficiency consistent with its defensive effort in 2013.

Actual 2014 Performance 37.50 (9th) 30.09 (30th) -2.55 (49th) 66.42% (14th) 6 Wins
Permutation I 37.50 (9th-ish) 30.09 (30th-ish) +2.78 (17th) 66.43% (14th) 6 Wins
Permutation II 37.50 (9th-ish) 25.39 (9th-ish) +2.78 (17th) 77.01% (5th) 7 Wins
Permutation III 37.50 (9th-ish) 25.39 (9th-ish) -2.55 (49th) 77.01% (6th) 7 Wins

Why does an increase in possession margin not necessarily entail a greater expectation of wins? Because it matters more what you do in the run-of-play -- the rate at which you score and the rate at which you keep opponents from scoring -- more than simply having possession. Having extra possessions doesn't matter if you don't change your offensive or defensive efficiencies; in other words, extra possessions don't guarantee that a team will score more or yield fewer goals (what ultimately matters is the rate at which you score goals or yield goals). That's the fallacy that many fall into: Having extra possessions means little if the rate at which goals are scored doesn't change (a similar proposition applies for defensive considerations). The table above proves that position fairly well.

Still skeptical? Look at the possession margin change: It moves about 5.33 possessions per 60 minutes of play if Syracuse draws at the national average. If Syracuse continues on its efficiency trajectories -- amazing offense, average defense -- the net benefit in the rate at which it scores and yields goals is a little more than a third of a goal if the Orange draw at the national mean; if Syracuse increases its defensive performance, continues on its offensive trajectory, and increases face-off play, the net benefit in the rate at which it scores and yields goals is almost two-thirds of a goal.

Improvement in Syracuse's face-off play would certainly help the Orange's overall efforts. Again: Face-off play matters -- it creates offensive opportunities (which helps teams lean on volume if scoring becomes problematic); it limits defensive exposure; and it helps teams to run away and hide or keep the scoreboard close. However, Syracuse has a more pressing concern right now: The Orange defense is merely average. That's the story of Syracuse's season (the team's defensive regression), not the team's continued face-off woes.