With Syracuse one victory from its fourth Final Four appearance under Coach Jim Boeheim, odes to the Orange’s zone defense are flowing in, full-force. “The best I’ve seen it all year,” former Orange guard Matt Roe said after Thursday night’s bottling-up of Indiana, which managed all of 50 points, its lowest output of the season. With Marquette up next in Saturday’s East Region final at Verizon Center, there is much genuflecting in the direction of that all-limbs-and-length 2-3 zone, which some coaches call a gimmick but Boeheim sells as Gospel.
“It just overwhelms you,” Marquette Coach Buzz Williams said.
Boeheim has won 915 games at Syracuse, placing him second in Division I men’s basketball history. He has employed the zone in each of his 37 seasons, though he said it “finally dawned on me” that he should switch to it exclusively only a few years ago.
Why, then, do so few teams try to emulate Syracuse’s defensive strategy?
Coaching is, essentially, a copycat profession: One coach invents something, another tweaks it and soon it’s being taught on half the floors or fields nationwide. Given that, shouldn’t a young assistant, looking for his first head coaching position, walk into an interview with an athletic director and say, “If you hire me, I’m going to play zone defense like Syracuse plays zone defense”?
“For a guy to do it full-time, young and at a high level,” Williams said, “I don’t know that you’ll see that.”
“I don’t think that would work,” Boeheim said Friday. “Nobody does it.”
Or, rather, nobody does it as well, and nobody does it for 40 minutes a game. Consider, though, this year’s statistics: Opponents are shooting 37.2 percent against Syracuse, the third-lowest mark in the nation, and just 28.7 percent from three-point range, which ranks fourth. The Orange create 9.1 steals per game, second in the Big East. Only two teams in the country have blocked more shots.
“Coming into this season,” said assistant coach Adrian Autry, who played under Boeheim, “we thought this would be one of the best defensive teams that we’ve had.”
One of the best defensive teams in Boeheim’s 37-year career, playing exclusively zone. And yet it’s an anomaly in college basketball.
“I think a lot of coaches think they’re admitting to themselves if they play zone, ‘My talent’s not as good as yours,’ ” said Roe, who played three years for Syracuse before transferring and playing a year under Gary Williams at Maryland. “They say: ‘I want to recruit the best athletes. Kids in AAU play man-to-man. I’m going to be longer than you. I’m going to out-hustle you. I can match up man-to-man. I’m better than you.’
“Zone, I think some people get into that mentality of, ‘I’m not as good as you, so I have to come up with a gimmick.’ ”
Yet Syracuse competes for, and signs, some of the best recruits in the country. “I knew when I came here I’d play zone,” said sophomore Michael Carter-Williams, the 6-foot-6 spider of a point guard who has 104 steals this season, the most in the nation. “But there’s so many man-to-man principles in it, I knew I could be effective.”
It not only matters what the system is; it matters who’s playing it. This year’s version has the spindly Carter-Williams and the rugged, 6-4 Brandon Triche out front. Boeheim’s forwards, over the years, have looked very much like C.J. Fair, long-armed athletes who get hands in passing lanes and on shots (Carmelo Anthony or Hakim Warrick come to mind).
That’s not by accident. The objective of Boeheim’s 2-3 is to take away the opponent’s top two shooters. Indiana’s Jordan Hulls, a 44.7 percent three-point shooter this season, was the latest casualty: He missed all six of his three-point attempts Thursday night. Syracuse’s opponents in the NCAA tournament are shooting 16.4 percent from three-point range.
“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.
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Photos: Scenes from the tournament