I like Syracuse to win it all. I’ve been saying that to anyone who will listen to me (there aren’t many, for the record). Every time I do, the common response has been “they look awesome, but they can't play man.” They didn’t play man in their run to the 2003 national title either, for the record. When I bring this up, the obvious rebuttal is Carmelo Anthony, and then I’m back to square one. Turns out, common perception is that if you’re unable to play man to man, your deficient on defense. When Syracuse plays man, they are deficient. They’re give up 50 points in the second half of exhibition games and lose to teams like LeMoyne, deficient. You know when they aren’t deficient? When they play their 2-3 zone.
To push the argument in reverse, the knock on straight man to man defense over the years is that it allows teams to run their offense. Straight man is typically not as adapt at forcing turnovers as other defensive variations. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone doesn’t allow opposing teams run their offense. Their zone disrupts an opposing team’s offense like Dick Vitale would disrupt your local library. Syracuse is currently stealing the ball on over 15 % of their opponents’ possessions. That’s the best of anyone in the Top 10 right now. They’re also blocking a staggering 19.2 % of their opponents’ shots, 10 % higher than the national average. That means almost 1 of every 5 shots taken against Syracuse results in a blocked shot.*
It’s not like the Orange are running this because they don’t have athletes. Syracuse has athletes perfectly suited to the 2-3 zone’s strengths. They’re long and they’re quick, which allows them to be incredibly aggressive. More importantly, it erases one of the zone’s traditional weaknesses. Common wisdom tells you to shoot over the top of the 2-3 zone, and make your shots. Guards like Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine and Andy Rautins close on the ball so swiftly that the 3-ball is typically neutralized. Opponents are shooting under 31 percent from the 3-point arc against Cuse. They’re below the national average by almost 4 % on that one.*
The key addition that makes this zone scary good this year is Wesley Johnson. His wingspan is one of the reasons Syracuse is a blocking machine, but he does so much more than that. He’s smart and can play post to perimeter and back again without missing a beat. Paired with Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson, every position has the athlete it needs to make it work.
Which brings us to Jim Boeheim. This isn’t his first rodeo, as the saying goes. Coach Boeheim has been running this for years. And, contrary to popular belief, the 2-3 zone had as much to do with Syracuse’s 2003 national title as Carmelo Anthony did. Remember the Elite Eight against Oklahoma? Syracuse held the Sooners to 47 points on 31 % shooting from the field. That team was very similar to this year’s version in athletic make-up. And, for anyone who doesn’t like the two-headed point guard situation with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, they’re like 2003 in that way too. Except, the 2003 team had two freshmen at the point in Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin.
When it comes time for the tournament this year, no coach is going to want the nightmare of prepping for this defense, especially not in a two-day turnaround situation. I’m sure teams would love it if Syracuse played man to man. But, at the end of the day, Syracuse can’t play man. They proved that before the season ever started. They’ve been proving they don’t need to ever since.
*All Averages Were Found at Kenpom.com