OMAHA — The Washington Post can confirm that Syracuse has been allowed passage into the Sweet 16. A video board next to a locker room door shows an unmistakable orange “S.” That’s Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse-bound, 6-foot-5 son, Buddy, standing by the door. Inside, Syracuse players chatter to Syracuse TV cameras.
Clearly, there is no NCAA Committee on Aesthetics to vote out the Orange. The groans of a nation beholding Syracuse’s NCAA tournament wins of 60-56, 57-52 and 55-53 have not held any jurisdiction. In the symphony of clangs, victims Arizona State, TCU and Michigan State have ventured into the vaunted Syracuse zone and crawled out a combined 57 for 166 (34 percent), 22 for 86 on those irresistible three-point shots.
That latter percentage: .25581395349.
It just looks sad, sitting there.
The most somber number of all, Michigan State’s astonishing 8 for 37 from three-point range, helped prevent the anticipated Michigan State-Duke game here. It left Omaha with Syracuse-Duke, with a rematch of their 60-44 barnburner of February in Durham, N.C., with hoops geeks sitting around comparing zones. How does Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, which has been around since roughly the Mesozoic Era, differ from Duke’s newfangled thingy, which dates back to around February?
Duke senior Grayson Allen sat at a dais to answer but could have used a lectern.
“A lot of times, you’ll see when the ball goes into the middle against them, their center steps up,” he said, helpfully. “A lot of times there’s two guys stepping up to take the ball in the middle, whereas we try to keep our big to protect the rim and have another guy come to contest the shot in the middle or challenge the ball, try to make them uncomfortable then.”
In a match between a coach born in early 1947 (Mike Krzyzewski) and a coach born in late 1944 (Jim Boeheim), the sager philosopher spoke. Asked on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption” Tuesday to defend his clunky team against the masses who would portray it as an eyesore, Boeheim proclaimed — okay, he said, because he doesn’t run around proclaiming — that defense is beautiful.
On Wednesday at CenturyLink Center here, he began, “I think defense is good.”
And while he wasn’t suggesting his own epitaph there, he was beginning a defense of his defense and of his No. 11 seed that squeezed into the tournament, then has squeezed on through, much as his No. 10 seed in 2016 reached the Final Four.
“I think it’s funny about the fans and the public and the media: Everybody says defense wins games, but then when they see it they don’t like it,” he said. “You know, fans and the uneducated in the media and uneducated in the fandom base want to see 85-82 games, which I think there’s a beauty in that, or 90 to 95 or 100. And you can do that. You can watch the NBA and see that anytime you want to. College basketball is different. It’s always been different. You can control the game a little bit more with your defense and with your offense a little bit, too.”
He continued: “But there’s a good thing in watching a good defensive team. If you’re an offensive guy, then you’re not going to like it, probably. But if you like defense and you see good defense — I watched Virginia’s team this year, and I think they’re great. I love to watch. Their defense is unbelievable. It’s fun to watch. But if you like offense, you’re not going to like it. But we tried to play a combination of good defense and good offense this year. We just can’t do one of those two things. We’ve had many teams in the past that have played zone but we’ve averaged 80 points a game. We just aren’t good on that end of the court. Where we struggle is on that end. On defense, if you like defense, it’s good to watch. But our offense has struggled, and that gets difficult sometimes.”
Finally: “I don’t like to watch it sometimes.”
His team distills life to one of its essential questions: whether defense can be beautiful or, by its calling and its nature, is supposed to be ugly. Boeheim’s players see game film and see beauty.
“And you will see, when everybody’s locked in, when we are moving, helping each other out, I think it’s a beautiful thing to see, yeah,” said Paschal Chukwu, a 7-foot-2 center from Westport, Conn.
“Being all on the same page, moving around the same time, just moving as one,” said Oshae Brissett, a 6-8 forward from Mississauga, Ontario.
Just moving as one. . . . That hint of ballet might help a viewer.
It didn’t help Arizona State, which averaged 82.7 points and got 56; or TCU, which averaged 82.1 and got 52; or Michigan State, which averaged 80.2 and got 53. Arizona State Coach Bobby Hurley saw “a rock fight,” TCU Coach Jamie Dixon noted that they “slowed the tempo down,” and Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo saw “a war of a game.” Michigan State’s Miles Bridges found himself “probably the saddest I’ve ever been in my life,” proving how a well-crafted 2-3 zone with the big man stepping out can wreak untold human sadness.
They have all seen zones, but Syracuse’s seems to be different, according to those in the know, including Arizona State’s Kodi Justice, who cited “their length, their athleticism, the way they took away the corners, kind of taking away the middle.”
Those teams, of course, had not seen Syracuse before. Duke has, and Boeheim said: “I never liked to play teams that I played [already] in the tournament. And I think it’s better for us when we don’t.”
Giant talents such as Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. are the kind Syracuse once had more bountifully, in the days of Pearl Washington; or in 1987 when the Derrick Coleman-Sherman Douglas-Rony Seikaly Orange rattled to the national final with score tallies of 79, 104, 87, 79, 77 and 73; or Carmelo Anthony in 2003, when Syracuse belonged to a conference that fit more snugly with its region, when it hadn’t had that little NCAA kerfuffle in 2015 that might have lent recruiting a hiccup.
Krzyzewski said playing zone can help a team comprehend the “intricacies” of its offense. He also said, “We’re playing very good basketball right now.” Duke-wise, that long has been known to rob a defense of some of its beauty.
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