Syracuse and the Huggins tree agree that shooting’s overrated

C.J. Fair glowers disdainfully at your traditional basketball metrics like "shooting."

C.J. Fair glowers disdainfully at your traditional basketball metrics like “shooting.”

Yesterday at Insider I wrote about Syracuse, and in passing I mentioned a curious feature of this team that’s already become apparent. Jim Boeheim’s men have proven they can win games while not shooting as well from the field as do the overwhelmed opponents (Cornell, Fordham, Colgate, and St. Francis NY) that are imported into the Carrier Dome. Since that post hit the interwebs, the Orange went out and extended this rather remarkable streak, defeating Minnesota in Maui 75-67 despite the fact that the Gophers (52.9 effective field goal percentage) were more accurate from the field than were Boeheim’s men (47.3).

Winning teams are outshot from the field every day of the week, of course, but what’s fun about Cuse is that they’re raising this to an art form. 

             2FG%     3FG%     eFG%
Syracuse     46.1     32.9     47.0
Opponents    45.1     37.7     50.8

Through games of Nov. 25

C.J. Fair and company have now been outshot from the field four times in a row, yet Syracuse won those four games by an average margin of 12 points. Who needs shooting?

As always, Cuse is forcing opponents to shoot a very high number of threes, but what’s weird in November of 2013 is that those shots are falling. That level of perimeter success from opponents won’t continue, naturally, but the weightier question for Orange fans is whether their own team’s mediocre shooting will.

Meantime I began to wonder just how flagrant Syracuse’s flouting of basic hoops physics has really been to this (early) point. Historically speaking what “should” happen when opponents shoot 3.8 effective FG percentage points better than you do?

Answer: You should be pretty bad. Over the past three seasons there have been 68 major-conference teams that have been in that -3.8 statistical neighborhood during conference play. While the good news is that 11 of those teams overcame their relative struggles from the field and made the tournament (it really helps to be coached by Bob Huggins or his ilk — see below), the bad news is that the group as a whole posted a .354 winning percentage in major-conference play.

By “in the statistical neighborhood,” I mean not counting out-and-out basket cases like TCU last year on the one hand (outshot by a whopping 11.6 eFG percentage points in Big 12 play), or teams that were just barely outshot from the field during conference play on the other (e.g., North Carolina last year). Note however that even when we do toss in this second group, it’s still not a pretty picture. If you’ve been reading along with me for a while, you’re well acquainted with the iron laws of being outscored during conference play. (Summary: No matter what seed you get, you’re still doomed unless you’re West Virginia in 2005.)  Well, here are your iron laws of being outshot from the field during major-conference play:

Oregon last year and Cincinnati in 2012 made it to the Sweet 16, and West Virginia managed to nab a 5 seed in 2011. Those are the respective high-water marks for outshot teams — even just barely outshot teams — over the past three years.

Bringing this back to Syracuse, the Orange actually came pretty close to being outshot from the field during the program’s final season in the Big East, bettering conference foes by just 0.4 eFG percentage points. Maybe that was foreshadowing, maybe this season’s Cuse offense is just finding its bearings, or maybe it doesn’t matter either way, at least not as much as it used to. Perhaps shooting from the field will just turn out to matter a little less if we’ve embarked on a brave new era of free-throw-intensive hoops.  If door number three does turn out to be the winner here, I know a coach who certainly got in on this ground floor….

BONUS proof that Boeheim’s just a poor man’s Huggy Bear! The Bob Huggins coaching tree has compiled quite a body of work in this “You shoot better than we do and we refuse to care” field. Mick Cronin, Andy Kennedy, Frank Martin, and, not least, Huggins himself have all made something of an annual rite out of making opponents shoot quite badly and then somehow shooting even worse.

                        eFG%
                      deficit   W-L   NCAA finish
Kansas State    2012   -0.2    10-8   8-seed, lost in R32
Cincinnati      2011   -0.5    11-7   6-seed, lost in R32
Ole Miss        2012   -0.9     8-8
Ole Miss        2013   -1.1    12-6   12-seed, lost in R32
West Virginia   2011   -1.1    11-7   5-seed, lost in R32
Cincinnati      2012   -1.6    12-6   6-seed, lost in S16
Ole Miss        2011   -1.7     7-9
Cincinnati      2013   -3.2     9-9   10-seed, lost in R64
(Syracuse       2014   -3.8)
West Virginia   2012   -3.9     9-9   10-seed, lost in R64
West Virginia   2013   -4.9    6-12
South Carolina  2013   -8.6    4-14 

eFG for conference games only

In a manner of speaking the Huggins coaching tree has gone 11-of-12 the last three years. The only Huggins-tree team that shot better from the field than its opponents during conference play was Martin’s Kansas State group in 2011 (+1.4 eFG% — heresy!). And yet these teams keep making the NCAA tournament and even the round of 32 with regularity. Coach Huggins, I salute you! If shooting from the field is indeed a currency that’s being devalued, you, sir, are well positioned to reap the benefits.