The "Mendoza Line" is named for 1970s-era shortstop Mario Mendoza, and is defined in baseball as having a batting average below .200. Mendoza was actually a career .215 hitter, but go fight colloquial City Hall. The expression lives, and it's useful.
In college hoops there are a couple clear Mendoza Lines that you may have seen me refer to from time to time. Definitely three-point shooting that falls under 30 percent qualifies, whether that shooting comes from a team or an individual.
Another good example of a bright red line in hoops comes to us courtesy of defensive rebounding. The percentage of opponents' missed shots that your team pulls in should usually fall somewhere in the mid- to upper-60s. Anything over 70 percent is usually very good, although that number can of course be influenced by your particular conference's aggressiveness in pursuing offensive rebounds.
Conversely if the first digit of your team's defensive rebound percentage in conference play is a "5," that is just atrocious, truly. This is the Mendoza Line for defensive boards: 60 percent. I usually see sub- or near-60 performances only from the occasional Northwestern, maybe a Providence or a Seton Hall from time to time, and very few others. (Ironically, the Pirates this year are above-average on the defensive glass. Duly noted.)
All of which is on-point because this year's 29-1 Syracuse juggernaut has in fact been flirting with this particular Mendoza Line all season long. At the moment the Orange have rebounded precisely 60.0 percent of their Big East opponents' missed shots. People like to say it's tough to rebound while playing zone defense, but Boeheim's played zone for years and this is the worst performance on the defensive boards that we've seen from one of his teams in recent memory.
My colleague Ken Pomeroy has already called attention to the Orange's "awful" work on the defensive glass, and in his piece Ken came up with an incredible stat. Over the past decade no NCAA tournament games, not one, have been won by a team that is this bad at defensive rebounding.
The good news for Cuse fans is that this amazing streak will come to an end in 2012. I'm going out on a limb and guessing that Jim Boeheim's team will in fact win at least one NCAA tournament game. (I live dangerously.) Even so, Ken raises an excellent point. When a team is this off-the-charts terrible at something as basic and important as simply rebounding the other team's misses, how realistic is it to expect them to mount a deep tournament run?
Maybe I'm whistling past the graveyard on this one, but I actually think it's very realistic to expect a deep tournament run from Boeheim's men. At the risk of oversimplifying the question, if Syracuse's atrocious defensive rebounding were going to hamper this team's performance in a dramatic fashion, we'd probably know it after 17 Big East games and 1,113 in-conference possessions. That's what you'd call a large sample size, and you might have noticed the Orange are 16-1. It's apparent to this observer that Boeheim's found ways of working around the fact that his players can't or won't rebound the basketball on the defensive end. Let's consider some of those ways, how well they've worked so far, and whether or not they'll be equally effective in the NCAA tournament.
First, keep in mind that even with the league's No. 15-rated effort on the defensive glass (Boeheim's men can at least look down on St. John's in this department), Syracuse still plays the best defense in the Big East, allowing conference opponents just 0.94 points per trip. Now, you might object to that figure on the grounds that opponent turnovers are baked into it, and you don't think the Orange will be able to get as many of those once they start facing some of the very best teams in all of Division I, say, from the round of 32 on.
Fair enough. Lets look exclusively at possessions where the opponent does not commit a turnover, what I call an "effective" possession. When the metric of choice is opponent points per effective possession, the Syracuse D does indeed tumble out of first place in the Big East. (Georgetown, take a bow.) But what's striking is that while the Orange are certifiably terrible at rebounding, they're still able to achieve above-average results on D even when turnovers are taken out of the equation entirely. This defense has held conference opponents to 1.23 points per effective possession. That's slightly better than the Big East average of 1.26, and it's a number that can be traced primarily to Syracuse's excellent field-goal defense inside the arc. Opponents are finding that even when they do get an offensive rebound it just gives Fab Melo another chance at blocking their shot.
In addition to limiting opponents' scoring, the Orange also happen to be very good at putting points on the board in their own right. (For the record Syracuse's offensive rebounding is also below-average, but it's nowhere near as embarrassing as their defensive rebounding.) Earlier this week I pointed out that Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph, and company take better care of the ball than any Syracuse team we've seen in years. This group shoots the ball very well, and they get a lot of opportunities to shoot. Basically we need to see the Orange's struggles on the defensive glass in context. It's true opponents get a high number of offensive rebounds, but those opponents also have to keep up with what is far and away the best offense in the Big East.
One of two things is about to happen. Either Syracuse will lose the last game of their 2011-12 season, or they'll win the national championship. If the first scenario comes to pass, and the Orange lose that game because their opponent scooped up a tremendous number of offensive rebounds, then we'll be able to say this team's terrible defensive rebounding really did spell their doom. But of course it's just as likely that Syracuse will lose such a game because they had an off shooting night, or the refs misunderstood the rules pertaining to backcourt violations, or any one of a number of things wholly unrelated to defensive rebounding.
And if the second scenario becomes reality, no one will care so very much about how well Jim Boeheim's players performed on the defensive glass. Can a team really win it all while coming in at or below this particular Mendoza Line? Syracuse is about to give that question a fair test.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.