Less than a week before the season began, the Syracuse Orange lost a Conference
home exhibition game to Division-II Le Moyne, another college in
Syracuse. The Dolphins finished their regular season ranked fourth … in
No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Conference. Meanwhile, the ‘Cuse are 27-2 and look to have secured a
In fairness, the main reason why Syracuse lost (and allowed 82
points) to Le Moyne was that it was giving man-to-man defense a try.
Clearly, it did not go very well. It’s a good thing that Syracuse relies
and specializes on the 2-3 zone, and Jim Boeheim and company do a
great job of teaching it.
Syracuse recruits players specifically
for its zone defense. Long, active players like Hakeem Warrick
and Wesley Johnson are perfect for it. In
addition to bringing in players who fit their system, the ‘Cuse focuses
all of its defensive effort and coaching on the 2-3 zone. Because of
this, no team in the country plays a half-court zone better than the
This Syracuse team is particularly good at playing the
2-3 zone. At the top, they have two quick point guards (Brandon
Triche and Scoop Jardine), and a senior sharpshooter who has
become very good at playing the zone (Andy Rautins). On the
baseline, they have one very big body (Arinze Onuaku) to patrol
the middle, one semi-big body (Rick Jackson) and two long,
athletic forwards (Johnson and Kris Joseph).
You may think
that all zones are the same. You may think that zones are passive by nature. You
may even think that teams play zone when they cannot match up man-to-man
with their opponents. But go ahead and watch Syracuse play its 2-3
zone defense for a few minutes, and I guarantee you will change your
The ‘Cuse plays a little different than a standard 2-3. For starters, their wings play higher, inviting teams to pass the ball into the
corner. When this happens, they put on a hard trap, usually leaving the
farthest player from the ball uncovered. Why? Because it’s a little
difficult to spot a teammate across the court when you have 6-foot-7 and
6-foot-4 players in your face. Even if you can find that teammate, chances
are you are not going to be able to throw a good skip pass to them.
are several reasons why a team that primarily plays a zone defense
actually has an advantage. First, most teams play man-to-man, so most
offensive practice time is spent figuring out ways to score against this
style of defense. It would be foolish for a coach to spend a
significant amount of time teaching players to attack a 2-3 zone if they do not see much of that during the season.
Second, there are
only a few ways to attack a zone, as opposed to a man-to-man. The Syracuse
coaching staff knows this, so they can focus on different ways to
defend against specific offensive sets. This obviously cannot be done
when playing man-to-man. A coaching staff cannot go over every play that
a team might run — it would take forever.
The 2-3 zone was in
full effect Saturday night against No. 8 Villanova. In front of a
record crowd, the Orange absolutely crushed the Wildcats 95-77. Syracuse was
terrific on both ends of the floor. The zone did not completely shut the Wildcats down — but it sped them up and forced bad shots and turnovers.
That is what it is designed to do.
The Carrier Dome crowd was
also impressive on Saturday, setting an NCAA record as the largest ever
at an on-campus basketball game with 34,616. It was the first time the
Dome has ever been sold out for a regular-season basketball game.
Orange are playing terrific basketball right now. They have a tough
defense that teams are not accustomed to playing against. Meanwhile, on
offense, they have a balanced attack and are solid both inside and outside. Inside,
Onuaku and Jackson have the beef and soft touch that makes them tough to
guard. Outside, Rautins has that terrific jumper and Triche can really
penetrate. Then there is Johnson, who does a little bit of everything,
much like Warrick used to.
When the new polls come out on
Monday, Syracuse will be ranked No. 1, since the three teams ahead of
them (Kansas, Kentucky, and Purdue) all fell this past weekend. The
Orange are 27-2 overall, 7-0 against ranked opponents, and have already clinched the
No. 1 seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament.
But that’s not
all. With the way Syracuse has played this season, especially of late,
they have almost certainly already locked up a No. 1 seed in the
upcoming NCAA Tournament. They have two remaining regular-season games,
home against St. John’s and at Louisville. As long as they take care of
business against St. John’s, there is no chance they will not garner one
of the four No. 1 seeds.
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