“The biggest thing is, we recruit for our system,” said Orange assistant Gerry McNamara, another former Syracuse player. “You could scout against it, but you can’t simulate it, because we recruit for it. It’s difficult when you don’t face it every day to simulate what you’re about to face because more often than not opposing teams don’t have the same type of length, and they don’t cover it the same way.”
On a November night 31
2 years ago, Syracuse hosted Division II Le Moyne in an exhibition game. The Orange played man-to-man that night — and lost. “I figured out, [if] we can’t beat this team playing man-to-man we better forget about playing man-to-man,” Boeheim said, “because they lost 10, 11 games in Division II that year.”
The way Boeheim figured it: Why are we wasting valuable practice time on something we’re incapable of mastering when we could be perfecting something we know we do well? “That’s wasted defensive time for us,” Boeheim said. Essentially, it sharpened his focus. Forget what others might do or say. Playing only zone freed Boeheim’s mind.
“When we played both defenses, I used to second-guess myself,” Boeheim said. “It’s bad enough when 30,000 people are second-guessing you. When you start second-guessing yourself, you’re really in trouble. When we went to just playing zone, at least I don’t second-guess myself anymore.”
The Orange now play just the zone, but they adapt it to different situations – trapping in the corners, raising it almost to the foul line to put pressure on ballhandlers, sagging the center to give a 2-2-1 look.
“But it has to be your identity,” Autry said. It is, by now, the identity of just one program — not just in the tournament, but in the country. Yet when Boeheim retires, might he take the defense with him? “If I’m a coach, there’s no question that I implement it,” McNamara said.
Yet in recent memory, no young coach has taken over a program and eschewed man-to-man.
“Maybe if you were at a one-bid league institution,” Williams said, “where maybe you weren’t tracked and followed?”
Maybe. Boeheim’s zone has been tracked since the early 1980s, tracked to the point when he decided to play it exclusively. Yet it still baffles, and has not been duplicated, in part because so few have had the courage to try.