Putting Syracuse’s historically atrocious three-point shooting into context

He's been far and away Syracuse's most accurate three-point shooter. He's shooting 28 percent.

He’s been far and away Syracuse’s most accurate three-point shooter. He’s shooting 28 percent. (syracuse.com)

If the Unannounced Audit Panel of the US Basketball Writers Association shows up at my door later today, I think I’ll be in pretty good shape. I’ll steer them toward my pre- and early-season wariness of a North Carolina team that at the time was being ranked in the top 10 or even in the top five. I’ll trot out my hearty approval of Tony Bennett’s decision to embrace offensive rebounding last season. (Now look. The guy’s practically Tom Izzo Jr.) And I may even call attention to my canny (if entirely risk-free) decision to leave an analytic light on just in case an NJIT team returning six members from a seven-man rotation should decide to win one of its four tries against major-conference competition — despite the fact that the Highlanders entered the season 0-22 lifetime on that score.

All in all I feel like the audit will go pretty well. But then the diligent and tireless auditors will ask me about Syracuse, and that’s where things could get a little awkward. What was that I said again about the Orange being “underrated”? Just what exactly did I mean when I said “the laws of statistical gravity suggest an offense powered collectively by Trevor Cooney and players to be named later can shoot just as well as if not better than the one that last season was focused with surprising insistence on C.J. Fair”?

Since those statements were so confidently asserted Syracuse has started the season 5-3, losing two of those games by double-digit margins to unranked opponents. Furthermore Jim Boeheim’s men have reached mid-December shooting 20.8 percent on their threes. So, yeah, at that point in the audit I’ll have two options — flee or explain. And since I’ve already given the USBWA my home address, I guess I’ll have to opt for the latter. 

Turn that frown upside-down, Cuse, it could — incredibly — be worse
The most amazing single fact about Syracuse’s historically atrocious three-point shooting is that at the moment this is not even the worst perimeter shooting team in the ACC. That honor belongs to Florida State, which has made just 20.4 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc. And, while the Orange were nothing to brag about in this category last season, keep in mind the Seminoles are just a few months removed from ranking No. 1 in ACC play for three-point accuracy (39.8 percent). This sport humbles not only observers foolish enough to make predictions but also the actual participants.

It gets better
The worst-case scenario for three-point shooting in major-conference play would appear to be 25 percent.

Worst three-point shooting teams, 2009 to present
Major-conference games only

South Florida, 2014     24.8
USC, 2012               24.8
South Florida, 2010     24.9
St. John's, 2013        25.0
Oklahoma State, 2011    26.0
LSU, 2011               26.3
Alabama, 2011           26.7

Out of the 450 major-conference team-seasons played since the introduction of the new three-point line before the 2008-09 season, just seven teams have managed to connect on less than 27 percent of their threes. Meaning a given team has just a two percent chance of being that bad.

Of course at this point Syracuse is no longer just “a given team.” This group certainly looks like a better candidate to join that ignominious two percent than previously thought. Yet, rather astonishingly, even that level of ignominy would represent an improvement over what we’ve seen from the Orange thus far.

Besides, Syracuse is already shooting better than it did in ACC play last season
Not that you’d want either bunch representing you in a game of H-O-R-S-E, mind you:

                                 2FG%   3FG%   eFG%
Syracuse now                     53.6   20.8   47.3
Syracuse in ACC play 2013-14     45.2   31.7   45.8

Woo-hoo! My “laws of statistical gravity” line was right after all.

Sort of. Perhaps this season’s excellent two-point shooting will become a bit less excellent as sample size and opposing frontcourts both grow larger. But the emergence of Rakeem Christmas as a scorer and the (somewhat overshadowed) fact that Chris McCullough has been more or less as good as advertised should pay dividends over the coming months. St. John’s won at the Carrier Dome 69-57 not only because the Orange went just 3-of-22 on their threes but also because the Johnnies were 9-of-16 on theirs.

In fact as long as Cuse is making twos the “real” problem on offense isn’t so much shooting as it is turnovers. On each “effective” (turnover-less) possession, the Orange so far this season (1.27 points per effective trip) have been right where the team was in ACC play last season (1.25). In the post-Ennis era, however, giveaways have shot up from something that happens on only 14 percent of possessions (in conference games last season) to more of a one-in-five kind of thing. It’s no mistake that the Orange had their best perimeter shooting game of the season at Michigan but lost anyway. Committing 19 turnovers when the other team records just seven will have that effect.

The only thing worse than Kaleb Joseph trying a three is telling him publicly not to
After the St. John’s game Boeheim said freshman Kaleb Joseph has to “learn that he’s a point guard and not a three-point shooter.” The coach is rightly concerned that Joseph has started his career 3-of-14 on threes. Then again Trevor Cooney started his career 2-of-16, and as a sophomore he hit 37 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Joseph is clearly no Nik Stauskas and he probably won’t turn out to be another Cooney either, but a freshman who went a thoroughly normal 3-of-10 against Michigan and St. John’s is a curious target for an outright ban. The most likely outcome is that Joseph will be a pass-first point guard who tries an occasional three when left wide open. And if this particular pass-first point guard can keep his turnovers to a minimum, Syracuse could still have a shot at respectability.