Thursday, April 11, 2013

Syracuse 3FG Defense

During the NCAA Men's tournament Syracuse received much publicity and warranted praise for its 2-3 defense. (In fact, it received such recognition that even NPR ran a segment on it.)  The movement and the length of the defenders seemed to receive most of the credit for the zone's success. But there's something equally important that Jim Boeheim understands as well as anyone--college kids are not good jump shooters and the further from the basket you make them shoot the worse they get. Blame it on the 'AAU-I gotta do me' culture or Youtube dunk contests or whatever but what Boeheim gets so well is that if opponents do something poorly then make them do a lot of it.

Among division 1 college basketball teams over the last season, Syracuse had the third best opponent three point field goal defense percentage at 28.4%. (The two teams ahead of them--New Hampshire and Weber St--were sub 80 RPI teams and didn't play close to the competition that Syracuse did.) Among the top 100 division 1 basketball teams in terms of opponent three point field goal defense percentage Syracuse averaged the 7th highest opponent 3FGA per game at 21.7 (all 6 teams ahead of them allowed a higher opponent 3FG% and were from much lower-tier conferences than the Big East).

One way to look at this is--what was the value an opponent should expect for each shot attempt against Syracuse. For threes it was 0.852 points (28.4% opponent 3FG% x 3 points) and for twos it was only slightly higher at 0.854 points (42.7% opponent 2FG% x 2 points). But considering that two point attempts are far more likely than three point attempts to incur fouls and, thus, free throws (Syracuse's opponents averaged 19.1 FTA against them per game), opponents would have benefited even more by relying less on threes.

What became clear during the tournament was that not only did Syracuse's guards play excellent perimeter defense but the zone forced opponents to take a seemingly irrational number of contested threes--if history shows opponents that they have a low probability of making the shot then don't take it, or at least minimize the number of attempts. It wasn't just that their 5 tournament opponents shot 19% from the three, but the fact that their opponents averaged 23 3FGA while they should have known the three point attempt was an exceptionally low probability method for scoring points. (To give some reference, Montana took 31 3FGA, and Marquette and Michigan each took 24.) So what happened in the loss to Michigan? After shooting around 36% from threes in the first four tournament games, Syracuse shot 21%.

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