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Syracuse Without James Southerland Revisited

I very rarely complain about announcers. Broadcasting is a skill, and it should be obvious that even folks who know a ton about basketball (see Bob Knight) are not always capable of sounding informed and interesting for two hours at a time.

I also realize that TV networks are selling an entertainment product.

If the fans eat up two hours of Dick Vitale speculating about other teams, talking about the national player of the year race, and largely ignoring the current game, I can understand why Dick Vitale is an attractive ambassador of the game of basketball.

I might personally prefer Dan Dakich because he diagrams the X’s and O’s behind more plays (in real time) than just about anyone else.

I might personally love Jay Bilas (NCAA tournament version, not Big Monday version), because he usually provides some nice insights into what makes teams successful.

But I acknowledge when you are selling an entertainment product, those qualities are not always the most important.

I am pleasantly surprised when modern statistical analysis sneaks into more basketball games. When Dave Revsine chooses to use offensive rebounding percentage and explain it to fans every game, I smile. But I don’t necessarily consider it essential to enjoying the game.

But as someone who cares quite a bit about whether injuries are impacting a lineup, Len Elmore’s commentary on Saturday drove me nuts. Elmore noted how Syracuse was missing James Southerland’s 14 points per game and that the Orange clearly were missing his offense because their scoring had decreased from around 79 points per game with Southerland to around 67 points per game without Southerland.

First, it should be obvious to anyone who thinks about this for more than a few seconds that this analysis cannot be right. This is simply not an apples and oranges comparison. Syracuse's 79 PPG with Southerland included games against Central Connecticut, Wagner and Monmouth. And the games without Southerland have all come against quality Big East competition. Whatever you think about Villanova, you have to admit that playing at and hosting Villanova, you shouldn’t expect the same PPG as you did in the home games on the non-conference portion of your schedule. So clearly, what Elmore was pointing to as evidence was wrong, and I blame him for not giving it a little more thought.

What I don’t blame him for realizing is that this analysis is actually completely wrong. Syracuse offense had been BETTER without James Southerland. It may seem counterintuitive, but you cannot argue with the numbers. In the four games without Southerland, the Syracuse raw points per possession offense was 109.5, 111.1, 107.5, and 104.5. This was not even remotely a bad stretch of offensive basketball when playing quality competition.

And surprisingly, even after the raw 84.3 game Syracuse had at Pittsburgh on Saturday, Syracuse’s offense has been slightly better without their sharp-shooting star forward. Here are the revised splits through Saturday’s game adjusting for quality of opponent and venue as on kenpom.com:

 

W-L

Adj O

Adj D

Pyth

Syracuse with Southerland

15-1

113.2

81.3

0.9675

Syracuse without Southerland

3-2

117.8

93.9

0.9107

Now, to understand what has happened to Syracuse without Southerland, let’s talk about their lineup. As it turns out, the guard rotation has mostly stayed the same. Syracuse continues to rotate three guards. Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams start and are occasionally replaced on the floor by Trevor Cooney.

And for the most part, the center rotation has not been impacted. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita mostly rotate in and out for one another. DaJuan Coleman (due to injuries is actually playing less himself), although he previously rotated at the forward slots as well. The big change is for the other forwards. CJ Fair is playing 23% more minutes and Jerami Grant is playing 50% more minutes than when Southerland was active. (Fair has actually played 99% of the minutes since Southerland became academically ineligible.)

In the following table, I look at what has happened to these players ORtgs. I also adjust these ORtgs to account for opponent and venue. This probably isn’t quite fair, since Brandon Triche sees different quality defense than Trevor Cooney, but I simply replicate the team adjustments as made on Kenpom.com. The next table also lists how each player role on the team has changed. See the change in Pct of Poss used when on the floor.

What we see is that in fact, most of Syracuse’s players have played better since Southerland went down.

Player

Ch Pct Poss

Ch Adj ORtg

Adj ORtg

(w/o S)

Adj ORtg (with S)

Raw ORtg (w/o S)

Raw ORtg (with S)

FAIR, C.J.

-1%

16.6

133.4

116.8

117.3

114.8

CARTER-WILLIAMS, M.

7%

-10.0

98.8

108.8

86.9

107.0

TRICHE, Brandon

5%

10.7

121.9

111.2

107.2

109.3

GRANT, Jerami

0%

19.2

121.5

102.3

106.8

100.5

CHRISTMAS, Rakeem

-6%

-5.8

115.9

121.7

101.9

119.6

KEITA, Baye Moussa

-4%

1.7

122.2

120.5

107.4

118.4

COONEY, Trevor

-3%

-0.3

112.3

112.6

98.7

110.7

COLEMAN, DaJuan

-10%

27.6

115.7

88.1

101.7

86.6

SOUTHERLAND, James

 

   

128.4

 

126.2

Other

 

   

38.0

 

37.4 

Michael Carter-Williams is in a bit of a slump, and seems to think he needs to shoot more now that Southerland is out. But Carter-Williams is just about the only player who you could characterize as struggling.

Brandon Triche has been the real hero with Southerland out (particularly in the first half at Louisville.) Triche has been more aggressive and continued to score at an efficient rate against quality competition. Similarly, CJ Fair has become more efficient despite playing 99% of his team’s minutes. And Jerami Grant has now found a rhythm offensively now that he isn’t afraid of being yanked from the game.

The real struggle for the team has been on defense. And while it is often hard to measure how important a player is on defense, I think it is notable that James Southerland has a better block rate and steal rate than Fair and Grant. I also think it is likely that Southerland’s experience would have helped Syracuse be in better position again certain types of offensive sets. Pittsburgh ran some great screens to attack the Syracuse zone on Saturday, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Southerland could have made a difference in defending those plays.

Bottom line: So far Syracuse is not a worse offensive team without Southerland. If they have a few more games like they did against Pittsburgh, then maybe we can say the team misses Southerland’s scoring. But so far, they’ve missed his defense more.

One other recent lineup note:

Congratulations to North Carolina walk-on Jackson Simmons for earning playing time with the Tar Heels. Joel James and Brice Johnson received all the hype as top 100 recruits, but the walk-on forward has found his way into the rotation the last three games. He even played more minutes than starter Desmond Hubert, and he was the player on the floor in crunch time against Virginia Tech on Saturday.

On the other hand, this probably explains why North Carolina isn’t living up to expectations this year. James McAdoo and Marcus Paige have both been disappointing. In fact, they both had key turnovers in the final two minutes of regulation against Virginia Tech and that almost caused the Tar Heels to lose at home. But the lack of an emerging post-player has been the Tar Heels biggest problem this season.

 

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