In the zone: 'Cuse's commitment to defense may be ticket to Final Four
Orange share the same level of kinship with the 2-3 zone as their title game teams
Syracuse forces teams to shoot outside, where they're hitting just 30.4 percent
The Orange will put their trademark defense up against Butler in the Sweet 16
Syracuse's 2003 national championship team is primarily remembered for Carmelo Anthony's dominance in the paint and Gerry McNamara's torrid outside shooting. But as McNamara -- now a graduate assistant on the Orange staff -- is quick to point out, "the last play [to beat Kansas] was Hakim Warrick's block. And what did he do? He came over from the weak side to help."
McNamara's point, one reiterated by nearly every individual associated with the program, is that Jim Boeheim's best teams are defined by their defense -- specifically, the unique 2-3 zone preached by Syracuse's head coach of 34 years. From the earliest stages of the season, it's been apparent to those familiar with its intricacies that the 2010 Orange held the same level of kinship with the 2-3 as Boeheim's three teams that have played for the national title (1987, '96 and 2003).
"The way they play defense, they're on that level," said '96 point guard Lazarus Sims, now the team's coordinator of player development. "If they fall short of the Final Four, you really can't justify the season, because they're a Final Four team."
As the West Regional's top seed, Syracuse (30-4) will attempt the next step in that direction when it meets fifth seed Butler (30-4) on Thursday in Salt Lake City. The Bulldogs are a perennially dangerous foe due to their ability to knock down outside shots. Forty percent of their field-goal attempts come from beyond the arc.
But that's exactly the way the Orange like it. Coincidentally, Syracuse has forced its opponents to take exactly 40 percent of their shots from outside, ninth-most of the 347 Division I teams. They've made just 30.4 percent of them.
Again, picture the long-armed Warrick dashing from his spot in the lane to deliver that game-saving block of Michael Lee's three-point attempt in the 2003 title game.
"Our 2-3 zone," said star junior Wes Johnson, "is like no other 2-3 zone you'll see."
Even without injured 6-foot-9 forward Arinze Onuaku, Syracuse starts an unusually tall lineup of two 6-foot-4 guards (Andy Rautins and Brandon Triche), two 6-foot-7 swingmen (Johnson and Kris Joseph) and a 6-9 post player (Rick Jackson). 'Cuse tries to use its size to keep opponents out of the lane and force outside shots, where all those long arms allow nearly anyone on the floor to get out in shooters' faces.
"Our zone is a lot more aggressive than other passive types of zones you see out there in college basketball right now," said Rautins. "Especially the way we trap and the way we recover for each other with a high hand. We have a lot more length than people are used to seeing."
Boeheim is among a small minority of established coaches that prefers the zone to man-to-man. It's viewed by many as a "lazy man's" defense, an opportunity for defenders to relax when the ball goes outside their designated area.
But in Boeheim's zone, "you're moving much more than you would in a normal zone, more like a man-to-man," said freshman center DaShonte Riley. "There's all these rotations and traps you have to make."
In the Orange's 87-65 second-round rout of Gonzaga last Sunday, the Zags found success early by attacking the inside of 'Cuse's zone, throwing two lobs right off the bat to 6-foot-7 freshman star Elias Harris. He kept "sneaking behind the defense and getting a lot of points around the bucket," en route to 16 first-half points, said Johnson. "We came in at halftime and talked with the forwards and told them we have to close in and keep an eye on him.
With help from Riley and Jackson inside, Syracuse held Harris to eight points in the second half, while Gonzaga shot just 3-of-21 from beyond the arc.
"When you don't make threes against us," said Boeheim, "it's going to be a tough day."
Afterward, Gonzaga coach Mark Few explained just how rare a challenge his team encountered.
"You don't see really somebody that extensively plays that [zone] 40 minutes a night," said Few. "A lot of teams are afraid to zone us. We haven't seen probably more than, I don't know, maybe 100 minutes total all year of zone. Maybe even less than that."
While Boeheim has long recruited athletes that specifically fit the zone, "They don't always buy in. Some guys really want to play man-to-man," said Sims. "It's what [Boeheim] believes in. He's a Hall of Fame coach because of it. For a kid to come in and try to fight it, he's being pigheaded about it.
"From early in the season, you could see how these guys rotate, they're making the extra effort, the angles and cuts, all the principles of the zone that a guy that wants to play man is not going to do."
Boeheim knows his team's defense is not beyond reproach. Only a week ago, the Orange were coming off a two-game losing streak in which its opponents (Louisville and Georgetown) scored an average 84.5 points. The Hoyas shot 69.2 percent in the second half of a 91-84 Big East tournament upset.
"I think if you know how to play against zones, you can adjust to playing against our zone," said Boeheim. "We have a good defense and we hope it causes problems. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't."
However, even Boeheim concedes that the increasing paucity of zone teams nationally makes it tough for opponents to prepare for it, especially in the tournament, and his players seem to relish that edge.
"This team likes to play defense," said Rautins. "You don't see that with a lot of teams around the nation."
If the Orange fulfill Sims' prescribed standard and reach the Final Four, they'll likely do so by following a similar script to the '03 title team. Johnson is the new Anthony, a do-it-all game-changer who can dominate inside or out. Rautins is the new McNamara, capable of draining a three-point dagger at any moment.
But don't be surprised if the key play -- be it against Butler, or against Kansas State or Xavier if they make it to the Elite Eight -- is a key defensive stop by someone who's simply doing his job.
"That's our staple," said McNamara. "That's what makes us good."
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