The Numbers Behind Syracuse's Improbable Final Four Run

Syracuse's inclusion in the NCAA Tournament surprised nearly everyone, but they've reached the final weekend. How did they do it?

What a difference two weeks make.

On Selection Sunday, we were asking ourselves how Syracuse received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Now, the question is how the heck the Orange made the Final Four.

Yes, the bracket did them some favors, pitting them against an over-seeded Dayton team (a 7 seed, despite ranking 57th in our nERD power ratings) in the first round before their date with 15 seed Middle Tennessee State.

To their credit though, the Orange then took down Gonzaga (22nd in our rankings) and 1 seed Virginia (4th).

Syracuse (23-13) entered the tournament as the 39th-best team in the country, per our rankings but now rank 28th. Jim Boeheim and company will have their work cut out for them in Saturday’s Final Four matchup with North Carolina (second in nERD), but before looking ahead, it’s worth taking a look at how the Orange got this far in the first place.

Dominating on Defense

During the regular season (and their one game in the ACC tournament), Syracuse outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions.

In four NCAA tournament games, this margin has increased to 19 points per 100 possessions, and the Orange defense has been the catalyst.

‘Cuse Defense Games PTS/P eFG% 3P% 3Par FTA/FGA ORB% TOV%
Reg.Season 32 0.97 47.5% 30.4% 40.3% 0.294 33.4% 19.4%
NCAA Tourn. 4 0.88 43.0% 34.1% 38.6% 0.193 29.7% 18.1%

The Orange are allowing 0.09 fewer points per possession in the tournament than the regular season, thanks largely to the strength of their two-point defense. Of the 68 teams in the field, only four teams have allowed a lower two-point shooting percentage than Syracuse (37.9%).

A byproduct of Syracuse’s zone defense is a high-volume of three-point attempts, and for the season as a whole, more than 40% of their opponents’ shots have come beyond the arc (36th-highest in the country). While three-point shooting is volatile, this has not burned Syracuse this season, as Boeheim’s teams have routinely allowed low shooting percentages from deep. 2015-16 marks the seventh time in the last eight seasons that Syracuse has ranked in the top 50 in three-point percentage allowed.

Syracuse was also already one of the best teams in the country in terms of avoiding fouls, and the Orange have taken this to a new level in March, allowing only .193 free-throw attempts per field goal attempt allowed (the Orange are tied for 31st nationally in FTA/FGA at .283, while the national average is .364).

The tournament has also seen a vast improvement in terms Syracuse defense’s biggest weakness: rebounding. After allowing opponents to grab 33.4% of available offensive rebounds (well above the national average of 29.8%), Syracuse has reduced this to 29.7% during the tournament.

While this has certainly helped the Orange defense, it’s possible this is more a product of a small sample and favorable schedule than a real improvement.

Their four tournament opponents, Dayton, Middle Tennessee State, Gonzaga, and Virginia rank 214th, 206th, 96th, and 193th, respectively, in terms of Offensive Rebounding Rate, so the opportunity was certainly there for the Syracuse defense.

The Orange will not be as fortunate in their Final Four matchup against North Carolina, who ranks fourth in the country in Offensive Rebounding Rate.

Different Road, Same Destination on Offense

While Syracuse’s scoring average in the NCAA tournament has been at the same as their average during the regular season, the process has been different.

‘Cuse Offense Games PTS/P eFG% 3P% 3Par FTA/FGA ORB% TOV%
Reg. Season 32 1.06 50.5% 36.0% 43.3% 0.355 31.2% 17.4%
NCAA Tourn. 4 1.07 47.5% 36.0% 29.7% 0.391 36.0% 16.0%

Their Effective Field Goal Percentage has dipped below the national average over their past four games, despite a three-point percentage identical to their regular season average. The difference has been a drop in Three-Point Attempt Rate, as Syracuse has gone from attempting one of the highest-frequencies of threes in the country to doing so at a below-average rate.

The Orange have also been less efficient inside the arc, shooting just 44.1% on two-point attempts in the tournament, compared to 47.7% during the regular season (a rate which was still below the national average of 48.7%).

They have compensated, though, by continuing to dominate on the offensive glass, while drawing fouls and avoiding turnovers at a better rate than they did during their first 32 games.

The odds will be against the Orange on Saturday, as they are nine-point underdogs and have a 31% chance to beat North Carolina, according to numberFire Live.

Regardless of the outcome, it has been a wild March for Syracuse, which has gone from sweating out Selection Sunday to playing in the season’s final weekend.