There is a reason that Jim Boeheim has won more games than any other coach not named Krwzyzywrzyzski. It’s not that his schedules are loaded with puffery (they’re not, at least no more than your typical powerhouse program). It’s not that he’s able to routinely stack the roster with multiple McDonald’s All-Americans (there have been just 19 of them at SU in his 34 years on the bench). And it’s not that he’s just too stubborn to retire. It’s this:
The man is a brilliant coach. Full stop.
The latest example of this was the pair of adjustments he made midway through the first half of yesterday’s Big East opener vs. Rutgers. SU, led by Brandon Triche, started the game hot on offense, burying four of their first five 3-point shots and scooting out to a quick lead. But the lead was not particularly large, as Rutgers was knocking down threes of their own, mostly by Eli Carter, mostly from well behind the line. Then SU suddenly went cold, going over 4 minutes without a point. During that time, they took (and missed) seven jump shots, five of which were three-point attempts. They did not take any other shots or get to the free throw line. Meanwhile, Rutgers caught and then passed the Orange, taking a 20-18 lead into the under-8 timeout.
It was after this timeout that visible changes took place in the way Syracuse was operating on both ends of the floor. On offense, they took only one more long jumper in the entire remainder of the half, and that was Southerland spotting up for three wide open on a fast break with 2 minutes left. Otherwise, they worked the ball in close for layups and short jumpers, and drew some fouls (and made the resulting free throws). Some of the layups were of the transition variety, but even when they were going against a set defense they ran plays designed to get close shots. That this happened is not an accident. This is known as Coaching.
On defense, the 2-3 zone was tweaked and adjusted to compensate for RU’s hot outside shooting. The guards moved way out on the perimeter and defended Carter and his cronies anywhere inside 30 feet. The wing forwards crept up to help out too, when the ball went to the “foul line extended” area. This left the center and the other forward to defend the paint, basically inviting Rutgers to pass the ball down low. And they did — but then couldn’t do anything with it. The Knights’ frontcourt players are not particularly skilled with the ball, and much of the time they turned it over or took a bad shot. At best they passed it back out to the guards, but since the SU guards had stopped collapsing below the three-point line on entry passes, the RU guards could not get clean looks at the basket. That this happened is not an accident. This too is known as Coaching.
Boeheim is a master strategist. He doesn’t design innovative offensive sets, but he knows what fundamental basic thing his team can do against whatever defense you are playing. And on the defensive end, he adjusts the zone to take away what you do best, and make your less-talented players beat him. If they can.
Now, sometimes they do. Longtime readers of this blog (and there are a few of you, bless your hearts) are aware of what we call the Levance Fields Effect. In January 2007, soon after we started out blog, Mr. Fields — an unknown sophomore with relatively pedestrian stats — came out of nowhere to score 24 for Pitt as they beat SU in the Dome. We noticed that this kind of thing seems to happen to Syracuse a lot: some random bench dude who averages 5 points a game just going off against them (see also: Kuric, Kyle). So we call it the Levance Fields Effect. It’s only later in life that I’ve realized that this is, in a sense, by design. Boeheim is going to game-plan to counter your strength. He’ll do his best to limit your star players and make the rest of the team beat you. If your weaker link can step up and have a big game, congratulations, you may actually win. But as steeped in the game (particularly the college game) as he is, Boeheim knows that most of the time your weaker link is just that: weak. And most of the time, he’s going to win with this strategy. And he does. It’s simple enough for college players (of varying ability levels) to execute, yet refined enough to be maddeningly effective.
I hope he’s imparted these lessons to Mike Hopkins, or at least that Hop has absorbed them through osmosis in his many years under JB’s tutelage. Because when Jim does finally step away from the sidelines, we’re going to lose one of the game’s all-time geniuses.