Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim has a secret. It's the reason the Orangemen's tournament opponents are shooting 36 percent and averaging just 61.5 points, and it's what Texas Longhorns Coach Rick Barnes likely will devote much of his time to figuring out before Saturday's Final Four game tips off.
It's a 2-3 zone defense, a fundamental element to a coach's repertoire that Boeheim has refined to suffocating perfection. At first glance, Syracuse's success seems somewhat puzzling: In this age of chiseled athletic ability and exhaustive scouting, how can something as simple as a 2-3 zone stymie some of the best teams in the country?
"Once again," said St. John's Coach Mike Jarvis, whose team shot 29 percent in a 66-60 loss to Syracuse on Feb. 18, "that will be the hot topic at the clinics."
In Sunday's East Region final in Albany, N.Y., top-seeded Oklahoma made only 18 of 58 shots (31 percent). On a number of occasions, star guards Hollis Price and Quannas White tried to dart to the baseline with the ball, only to be trapped and forced to throw off-balance passes across the court. And when the Sooners took a shot, it frequently was hurried to beat the 35-second clock. The result was a 63-47 Syracuse victory, sending Boeheim to his third Final Four.
But despite the zone's widely acknowledged role in the Orangemen's run, Boeheim at times seems almost apologetic about his defense, which some testosterone-driven critics might label as a gimmicky alternative to man-to-man. "For the first 15 years [of his 27 as Syracuse coach], we played more man-to-man than zone," Boeheim said this week.
The truth is that few teams play much zone these days, and that, too, may be part of the reason for why it confounds opponents, who have little time to prepare for it, particularly on the NCAA tournament weekends when games are every two days.
"So when they see a zone," Boeheim said, "it's a real shock to the players. You can't prepare for [a zone such as Syracuse's or Temple's] by playing in practice against a bad zone."
The Sooners had just one day to adjust to Syracuse and, as Oklahoma Coach Kelvin Sampson had put it about his conference the day before: "The Big 12 is a man-to-man league."
All coaches have a zone in their arsenal, but most use it sparingly, as a secondary defense designed to stop a particular player or as a change of pace. As to why few coaches emphasize the zone, Jarvis said: "More coaches growing up were going to Bobby Knight's clinics than the zone clinics."
That may be a contributing factor. Jarvis acknowledges Syracuse hasn't made it this far just by being different.
"When you've got players," he said, "no matter what you use looks a lot better than if you don't have good players. There's only so many things you can do."
Syracuse's players this season seem to lend themselves perfectly to Boeheim's zone. The new buzzword in basketball is "length." Coaches use it to describe players with long arms or defenses that can stretch toward the three-point arc.
The trio of Syracuse defenders on the backside has extraordinary length. Freshman Carmelo Anthony and sophomore Hakim Warrick are on each side, with 7-foot sophomore Craig Forth or 6-8 shot blocker Jeremy McNeil in the middle. At 6-6, guard Kueth Duany also has length.
"We didn't want to give [Oklahoma's perimeter players] open shots," backup point guard Billy Edelin (Silver Spring) said. "We wanted to make them penetrate, where they aren't so good."
That is where length is important. It allows the Orangemen to counter the quick cross-court passes that lead to the open shots that foil most zones.
Familiarity helps dissect Syracuse (28-5), four of whose losses were in the Big East Conference. Georgetown lost three times to Syracuse, once in overtime and another in the final seconds, and the Hoyas scored 80 or more points in two of those meetings.
"I can describe their zone as well as anyone," Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick said. "We just didn't know how to [win]. . . . When you have a player like Mike Sweetney, it makes attacking a man or a zone a lot easier."
Texas also has an extraordinary, albeit very different, player in point guard T.J. Ford. His quickness and passing ability set up teammates for open shots. Ford does not shoot well, however, so the Orangemen may well drop the two outside players a bit to limit his drives in the lane.
Immediately after winning the regional title, Boeheim was in a playful mood and said of Barnes, who once coached in the Big East at Providence: "Someone told me Oklahoma State shot 57 percent against Texas' zone. My first reaction was that Rick Barnes didn't know what a zone was."
Boeheim admits he might have to adjust his defense against Texas.
"Sometimes we've had to come out of [the zone]. We may have to this weekend. We'll see what happens."