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Jim Boeheim and the offense of the go-to-guy

Posted by Tom on February 16, 2007

Everyone always gives a lot of well deserved lip service to Boeheim as the master of the 2-3 zone, but have you ever heard anyone specifically put Jimmy’s offensive coaching style under the microscope?

What got me thinking about this was seeing the UConn women’s team play following our loss to the Johnnies in the garden. After the game, they let everyone stick around to see the Ladystorm (or whatever they’re called) take on the lady Huskies immediately afterwards. Let me tell you, seeing those ladies play, especially after our ugly loss, was humbling. Almost every trip down the court involved at least 4 quick passes in the half court set, and culminated with someone who was open (or facing a defender that wasn’t set yet) taking a traditionally “good” shot. No one except the point guard ever seemed to hold the ball for more than a second or two. And since they can’t consider dunking, their layups are totally automatic. I left with a big crush on these ladies’ fundamentals. Quickly, I started noticing a similar style of play on certain men’s teams. Watching Notre Dame’s 63 point first half dismantling on January 30, the buckets they were hitting weren’t lucky shots. They were open shots. And they were making lots of quick passes to get them. So I started to wonder… what offense are we playing?

Now, I’ve been watching Syracuse basketball consistently for the last 20 years, and this question has always lingered in the back of my mind, waning when we’re playing well but coming to the forefront when we’re struggling. I’m obviously not a coach, and I can’t dissect 20 years of Syracuse offensive schemes in any sort of technical way, so I can only come at this from the fan perspective.

In the half court, the scoring has typically been attributable to one player hitting an teammate in scoring position with a single pass, or delivering on their go-to shot by beating their set defender. Rather than run an offensive scheme, Boeheim seems to give his guys a few basic plays to work with, and generally allows them to take turns trying to make something happen within that framework. This works a lot of the time because our players are so talented. But what does this say about Jim Boeheim’s offensive coaching?

The fair conclusion to make is probably that he’s more of a hands-off, let them play kind of guy, which has been said before. He recruits guys that he thinks can excell when given a green light to create, and lets them do their thing. So down the stretch in tight games, we’ve seen a lot of clear-outs for the go-to guy – Gerry’s 3 off a high screen, Hak’s inside fade-away, Melo squaring up his defender and doing whatever he wanted – these have been the primary go-to shots for each of the last three years. Which gets to my point that we seem to be a “go-to-guy offense,” that we live and die by having at least one person with that dominant move.

The reason why I’m focusing on this right now is that the traditional model doesn’t seem to be working with this year’s players. In the half court, there’s been a lot of 1-on-5 basketball down the stretch, with guys trying to force bad shots. We just don’t have the consistent go-to guy. Nichols is frequently brilliant, but he occasionally disappears and is not the same lock to beat his man and score or draw a foul on any given play. We’re scoring points well in transition, but in the half court, these guys are going with the traditional “taking turns trying to make something happen” Syracuse game, but without the offensively dominant guys who can make that work.

What we do have are five guys that can legitimately shoot the 3, in Nichols (45!%), Devendorf (38%), Rautins (36%), Wright (34%, though over 40% a week ago), and Gorman (50% on 12-24). Have we ever been able to say this about another Syracuse team?

So look, you know those undersized (usually mid-major) teams that rain 3’s all day, extend the defense, and occasionally hit their mediocre big man with an assist just to keep the defense honest? I see no reason why the ’06-’07 Orange couldn’t be an amazing version of those teams, since we’re bigger, quicker, and stronger than those guys. Good, fast perimeter passing to guys who can hit the open jumper. Emphasis on the fundamentals, waiting for good shots, and playing the game that suits your skills instead of relying on dominant athleticism. More like the, (yes, I said it) UConn women.


6 Responses to “Jim Boeheim and the offense of the go-to-guy”

  1. syracusan said

    Jimmy is many things: a great defensive coach, a superlative recruiter, a great evaluator of talent who consistently finds diamonds in the rough and underrated players, a connoisseur of sarcasm…but one thing he is not is a brilliant offensive tactician. He’s got his formula for success, and it’s not going to change. It wouldn’t work if he tried to change it anyway, because that’s not what he knows how to do well. And frankly, with the amount of wins he’s piled up, he probably doesn’t feel motivated to change anyway.

    He has done certain things well in the past on the offensive end, the utter failure of this year’s team notwithstanding. I’d say that traditionally he’s effective at disciplining players not to turn it over; he’s good at making it absolutely clear who the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd options are on offense, and who’s allowed to shoot, when, and from where; and he’s very solid at teaching the fast break and encouraging players to run whenever it’s open, and not to when it’s too risky. Granted every year there are freshmen and sophomores who haven’t gotten any of those messages, but almost always by the time a guy is a senior under Jimmy they can execute an offense at least to the extent described above.

    Granted, it’s almost all gone down the crapper this year, and very little of what I just said would apply to this current team. Why not is a mystery, other than a wickedly unfortunately collection of disappointing and/or uncoachable players all at once.

    We’re still lucky as hell to have a coach like Boeheim, and even if he can’t teach offense the way Roy Williams can, if you take into account all the factors of coaching college ball he’s still better than 99% of the other guys out there.

  2. Tom said

    Excellent summation. I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Josh said

    Any team is better with a reliable inside scorer. The usual SU offense is not so different from a lot of pro offenses — guards penetrate off screens, look to dish for 3s or score; big man posts up and takes it to the hole or passes out of the double-team. It’s pretty standard fare, effective when it works. The problem this year is that none of the bigs became a reliable post presence over their 4 years working with B-Fine, and the regular system has broken down because of it. I don’t think it’s that JB is not a good offensive “tactician”. He could have installed a new offense if he thought they would need it. Part of the problem this year was a failure to recognize that the frontcourt talent was not sufficient for the usual offense.

    The “women’s game” Tom describes sounds similar to the Princeton Offense, or what W.Va runs these days under Beilein. I think Boeheim could get his players to play like W.Va if he thought he had to. But it would require a much different lineup than they usually use, and here you run into problems. The roster is not designed to run a crisp passing offense because you want Roberts & Watkins out there together for defense and rebounding as much as possible. With two guys like that (or with Harris on the floor) you are not going to be able to play that kind of snappy style. Boeheim recruited guys to fit in his system — offense AND defense — and the guys just haven’t developed enough.

  4. syracusan said

    It occured to me that there are two teams in the Big East that have been most known for their excellent offense over the past 5-8 years: Notre Dame and West Virginia. Both of these squads have always been able to light it up from three and drop 80-90 per game year in and year out, even as players change. But you know what? Both of them have also carried around the rep of being total shit teams on defense, and often they have rebounding issues as well. This speaks to Josh’s point about the kind of kids we recruit. We may not have 9 guys that can all pass and hit the jumper, but we have big athletes in the back of the zone, we (theoretically) can hit the boards on both ends, we get hands in people’s faces on D, we block shots as well as anyone not named UConn, and even this year our FG% defense has been excellent. Our offense may not have as many options, but almost everyone can dunk an alley-oop pass.

    And, for the record, we usually beat the crap out of both ND and WV, and often that involves dropping 95 to outscore them, which our guys can do (not counting this year) when confronted with bad defense.

  5. Michael said

    You want offense, I’ll give you offense:

    And the ultimate dunk:

    Or, how about this for defense?


  6. ech1 said

    Yeah, I forget the technical name for the offense Boeheim uses, but it’s fundamentally based on “flow” and letting the players create, with priority given to getting the ball to certain guys in certain places. Then there are a few set plays designed mostly to be run out of stoppages of play. It’s fairly basic, but it’s effective assuming you have a certain level of offensive talent on the floor.

    Whenever Otis Hill decides to stop thrashing the Polish league, Boeheim should bring him back to teach the post guys some offensive moves.

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