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Sortin' Through the Rubble

I really don't know where to start this essay.

On paper and through the old fashioned eyeball test I thought that Syracuse was superior to Army almost across the board. Even in the preview I penned I didn't wholeheartedly believe that the Cadets would pull the upset, even though I begrudgingly wrote a focus that emphasized what the Black Knights could conceivably do to win the game. The game wasn't a stone-cold lock in my book (that went to Mount St. Mary's-Virginia), but it was pretty close.

And then last night happened. I'm still a little shocked at the outcome and it has nothing to do with Syracuse losing in May. This month has always been Orange for the better part of my lifetime and it is a little odd to see Syracuse watching from the their couches at this point in the tournament. What is truly shocking to me, though, is how the Orange went about its business against Army.

After taking some time to think about the game and run some numbers, I think that there are three items that ultimately impacted the outcome and a myth that doesn't bear out in the statistics. Some of these items are no-brainers, but some may have been lost in the shuffle over the last 12 or so hours.

Offensive Possession Margin
I've been saying it for a few weeks now: Syracuse is not a very efficient offensive team; the Orange has built a season of victories on pure offensive quantity, not quality. In order to achieve this end, Syracuse necessitated offensive possession volume in order to sustain its offensive viability. That metric for the Orange simply wasn't present against Army.

Over 15 games this season, Syracuse generated more offensive possessions than its opponents in 13 contests (the Orange lost the possession margin game to Providence by two and had as many offensive possessions as the Cavaliers when they traveled to Charlottesville). On the season, Syracuse averaged 7.29 more offensive possessions than their opponents.

Against Army last night the Orange had six fewer offensive possessions than Army. This is after dominating the possession margin metric against the Black Knights in February (Syracuse was plus-15 in this measure the last time these two teams met). For Syracuse, this meant three things:
  1. It was allowing Army to play above its head (the Cadets were -2.93 in possession margin this year). When you allow a team to overachieve at generating offensive possessions, the opponent can hide some of its offensive deficiencies as it's now allowed to employ the volume-offense methodology that Syracuse rode to success all season.
  2. It wasn't even allowed to have about two personal goal-scoring offensive possessions. This is scary to consider. The Orange was scoring about 31 goals per 100 offensive possessions this year. When you break down the rate to a per possession basis, it meant that in six offensive possessions Syracuse would pace itself with 1.8 tallies.
  3. It yielded about two Army goal-scoring defensive possessions. In the same vein as point two, the Cadets were registering about 29 goals per offensive possession. When you break the rate down on a per possession basis, it meant that in six possessions the Black Knights would pace itself with 1.6 scores.

It is pretty clear to see, therefore, that Army played above its head and capitalized on the opportunities. Syracuse only maintained a single victory on the season where it underperformed in this metric (against Providence, and honestly, it didn't even matter against the Friars as Providence is such a poor offensive team), and it came back to bite the Orange last night.

Generating Offensive Possessions
If offensive possession margin was the biggest problem for Syracuse last night, the obvious residual question relates to why the margin discrepancy occurred. As I've noted previously, there are three ways to generate an offensive possession: (1) Win a faceoff, (2) Maintain a clearing opportunity, and (3) Force the opponent into a failed clearing opportunity. Syracuse was abysmal in two of these three metrics against the Cadets -- faceoff percentage and opponent clearing percentage -- and it is shocking how much these performances may have impacted the final outcome.

On the season Army was 59th nationally in faceoff percentage at 39.39%. Only Wagner was worse in the country on the draw. Syracuse, conversely, was more than competent at the faceoff "x" with Thompson and crew coming away with 56.71% of their opportunities. That is a major disparity between these two teams in such a vital area of the game. This should've been a huge advantage for Syracuse, an advantage the Orange desperately required in order to hide their shooting accuracy.

When the dust had settled last night, Army won 12 out of 19 draws, good for 63.16% from the dot. If each team had played to their season mean last night, Syracuse would have walked away with 12 offensive possessions to Army's seven. That would have resulted in a four possession offensive margin from faceoffs alone, potentially yielding about one more goal-scoring offensive look for the Orange.

That's bigger than huge. It's superhugebig.

The other piece of this analysis turns on Syracuse's ride (or lack thereof). The Orange was tremendous on the ride in 2010, holding opponents to only a 76.51% clearing percentage. In turn, Army was only converting on 79.17% of their clearing opportunities. This should have been easy money for Syracuse, sticking hard to its ride, creating offensive possessions in potentially unsettled situations, and making the Cadets defense continue to work without a breather.

This, unfortunately, didn't happen. Army cleared at an 87.5% rate last night. Unreal. Even Syracuse, which was 10th in the country in offensive clearing percentage this year at 85.89%, didn't match that rate on the evening (the Orange cleared at 86.96% against the Black Knights).

I don't know why Syracuse's ride (when it was even in force) was so poor against Army. It was very effective in their first meeting with the Cadets in February (Army cleared at only 65.22% rate the last time the teams met in the Dome). Whether you want to chalk it up to good coaching by Joe Alberici or stick it to the Orange's riding effort you come to the same conclusion: Syracuse was dismantled in a metric it should have dominated.

Amidon, Thompson, and Daniello Were Missing in Action
2010 did not feature a particularly menacing Orange offense. Syracuse was functional in the offensive end (17th-best in the country in offensive efficiency), but the unit was constituted so as to win games for the Orange. When three of the six cogs that really made the unit go turn in poor performances, Syracuse is forced into an uphill battle.

Cody Jamieson, Stephen Keogh, and Jovan Miller were excellent last night playing well above their heads (although, you can argue where Jamieson and Miller went after the half). Jamieson was was the best of the bunch, holding a 9.1 individual offensive efficiency value and an effective shooting percentage of 60%. That's quite good. Keogh and Miller were close behind Jamieson and helped set the pace: Keogh had an effective shooting percentage of 40% and an individual offensive efficiency rating of 6.1; Miller also had a 6.1 offensive efficiency rating but was more accurate than Keogh through a 50% effective shooting percentage.

These three players weren't the problem last night. The issue lies with Chris Daniello, Josh Amidon, and Jeremy Thompson.

Daniello, the team leader in assist rate was just below his average last night, so it's hard to wag a finger at him for failing to provide helpers. What was especially frustrating about Daniello last night was his shooting: zero goals on seven shots.

Coming into last night's contest, Daniello was second on the team (tied with Jamieson) in offensive efficiency. He literally had not efficiency last night (0.0). Moreover, Daniello exacerbated his offensive deficiencies last night by taking so many more shots than he traditionally takes: On the year, Daniello was taking about .1596 shots per possession; last night he took .2121 shots per possession. He became the focal point of the Syracuse offense which wouldn't be a problem if Daniello was shooting well (his effective shooting percentage was around 28% on the season, which was third-best among the Orange's six primary offensive weapons), but he was atrocious in shot conversions against the Cadets.

When you combine these factors -- Daniello took more shots per possession, shot worse than he generally does, and really attempted to shoulder the offense when he couldn't carry the load -- one must question Daniello's actual impact on the game. Last night it was pretty deficient compared to what he can do.

As for Thompson and Amidon, both had a forgettable game. Both were a bigger part of the Syracuse offense than they traditionally have been (this is partly attributable to Army doing a good job on Jamieson and Keogh from the second half on), and neither rose to the occasion. Neither player is a very accurate shooter (Amidon had an effective shooting percentage of 22.55% on the year; Thompson was at 18.23% for 2010) and when both players combine for eight shots on the night, it isn't surprising that Syracuse is going to struggle to convert shots.

In the end, when the chips were down and the Black Knights locked up Syracuse's best three offensive players on the night, Daniello, Amidon, and Thompson could not pick up the slack. Daniello's performance was probably the most disappointing of the trio, but there's plenty of blame to go around.

Don't Blame the Defense
There was a bit of a discussion last night after the game that Syracuse didn't play its best defensive game of the year and it had a huge impact on the game. I just don't see that. Aside from a handful of boneheaded plays and garbage goals (White's in-between slide that lead to Army's game-winning goal is almost unforgivable), the Orange played almost as well last night on defense as it did all year. In the end, most defensive lapses will wash out for Syracuse anyway as it is so good at generating offensive possessions.

That comment aside, let's take a quick walk through Syracuse's defensive statistics last night:

  1. The Orange's defensive efficiency played almost exactly at it's average last night (Army clocked in at an offensive efficiency rate of 23.08; the Orange defensive efficiency on the year was 21.08). As a group and in totem, Lelan Rogers' defense just about did what it does.
  2. Army's effective shooting percentage was only 18.34% last night. On the year, the Cadets' effective shooting percentage was 25.99%. This is especially important when you consider that Army was ripping off just over a shot per possession, which is above Army's offensive average and Syracuse's defensive average. This shows me that the Orange was yielding tough shots and getting their sticks on the Black Knight's hands. It also shows how well John Galloway played in the cage last evening (he had 16 saves and stopped 64% of the shots he faced, well above his average).
  3. Despite Army winning the overall assist game, the Orange defense actually limited the Black Knight's ability to provide helpers. On the year Army had a team assist rate of .1630. Last night Syracuse held them to a .1538 rate. Of course, the ultimate tally came via the assist, but otherwise, the Orange did a good job of stopping Army's two-man game and making the Cadets relatively one-dimensional.

That's a pretty good defensive performance and it shouldn't be lost in the current conversation. In the end, though, none of this takes the sting out of the loss last night, but it does provide a little context.

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