In Sweet 16 win over Indiana, Syracuse shows power of zone
WASHINGTON D.C. -- Sitting on the bench Thursday night as Indiana missed shot after shot, Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins began thinking of 1996. That was the year a long-limbed and loosey-goosey Syracuse team barnstormed all the way to the national title game.
They boasted an underwhelming lineup of John Wallace, Otis Hill, Todd Burgan, Lazarus Sims and Jason Cipolla. And history will look kindly on that group, as its signature victory in that improbable run came against a Kansas team in the West Regional Final that started Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Scott Pollard and Jacque Vaughn, a stunning collection of NBA talent.
The equalizer, of course, came from Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone. With the 6-foot-5 Sims and 6-7 Cipolla spreading their pterodactyl wings up top, Kansas shot 4-for-25 from three-point range.
"The zone can neutralize," Hopkins said with a gleam in his eye, "a looooooot of things."
In the Round of 16 of the NCAA tournament Thursday night, Syracuse pulled a similarly seismic upset of Indiana thanks to the voodoo of its 2-3 zone defense. While the talent mismatch wasn't as steep, Syracuse stunned one of the country's best teams by not just beating Indiana, but completely overwhelming them.
The No. 4 Orange throttled the No. 1 Hoosiers, 61-50, as Indiana fell down by 18 early, never threatened in the game's final 10 minutes and scored a season-low 50 points. Syracuse's zone defense left the Hoosiers staring at it like a Latin test for which they hadn't studied. Once Syracuse started blocking shots, tipping balls and scoring on leak outs, its in-your-face defense went straight into Indiana's head.
"I felt like we were thinking more than playing," said Hoosiers freshman guard Yogi Ferrell, who was scoreless with four turnovers in 23 minutes. "That's due to the zone, really. It makes you overthink, 'Well, is that pass there or not?' And so, we're not in flow like we normally are just playing the game like we normally play."
Indiana finished the game 3-for-15 from three-point range, turned the ball over 19 times and had 10 shots blocked. Cody Zeller didn't shoot for the game's first 12 minutes and looked listless among long arms and physical players. (Zeller's lack of length is the knock against him in NBA circles, and he looked mighty short in his 3-for-10 performance Thursday.)
Guards Jordan Hulls and Farrell combined for zero points and six turnovers in 49 minutes, looking like like overwhelmed jayvee players called up to varsity too soon. In its film prep, Syracuse had endlessly stressed stopping Hulls, and did so with little effort, holding him to 0-for-6 from three-point range. Farrell played too fast all night, attempted just two shots, and got benched to start the second half.
"No one sees our zone," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "They see zone and they play zone. No one sees that zone. We're much better when we play teams that don't know us."
Syracuse will play No. 3 Marquette for a shot at the Final Four on Saturday. (And Boeheim pointed out that Marquette knows Syracuse well, as they've beaten the Orange three of the past four, including in the 2011 NCAA tournament.)
But Indiana clearly had no answers Thursday night. The 6-6 Carter-Williams and the 6-4 Brandon Triche dominated the game defensively from the perimeter. You could count the good Indiana possessions on one hand, as they looked as tentative and tight as Tom Crean's sideline scowl all night.
"It seemed to me that they were out there having fun," Indiana guard Remy Abell said. "At times we were having fun, but I don't think we were having fun for 40 minutes. We were thinking too much." He added: "It's like they run it to perfection. They're long and athletic and make you do stuff you don't want to do."
The shootarounds of Indiana and Syracuse on Wednesday afternoon offered prescient insight into their programs. Syracuse lollygagged through a free-and-easy dunk spree, while Crean ordered his Indiana team through drills with clinical precision and incessant yelling.
The Orange entertained barely breaking a sweat. The Hoosiers engaged with laser focus. Did the Hoosiers play tight?
"I guess you could say that a few of us were," Abell said. "I don't think we played as loose as we needed to."
The only Hoosier who didn't look overwhelmed by the moment was Victor Oladipo, who finished with 16 points on six shots. He sounded as much like a yoga instructor as a teammate in describing how Indiana attempted to overcome the Orange zone.
"I think we were anxious and overwhelmed," Oladipo said. "I think we needed to take deep breaths and slow down."
The best player on the floor Thursday was Carter-Williams, who scored 24 points, swiped four steals and grabbed five rebounds. Boeheim said he called three plays for him to shoot three-pointers—which he rarely does—because Indiana was going underneath screens and leaving him space. Just as Indiana's confidence waned with each miss and block, Carter-Williams' confidence grew with every make. He struck the game's dagger shot, a three-pointer to put Syracuse up 14 with more than nine minutes remaining.
Carter-Williams went through an emotional week, with his family home catching on fire and his family scrambling to put their lives back together. He spoke of losing a game jersey given to him by the family of his friend who passed, former Canisius player Richard Jones, who'd died from an enlarged heart in 2004.
Carter-Williams came out motivated for that and other reasons.
"I've been hearing that we don't have a lot of heart or we're soft or whatever," he said. "We showed we have a lot of heart, and we're a tough team, and when tough times come, we're able to get through it, and we're able to beat great teams."
It took Indiana six minutes to score its first field goal, 10 minutes to score its second, and the Hoosiers didn't hit a three-pointer until 18:30 passed.
They had few comfortable or succinct possessions against the zone all night. And as Syracuse ran away with the game and Indiana's season of national championship promise disappeared amidst the flailing arms of Syracuse's zone, a rollicking celebration broke out in Syracuse locker room.
A night that rekindled memories of Syracuse's 1996 team also had a nod to Syracuse's 1987 team that advanced to the national title game and lost to Indiana. Triche went to the locker-room whiteboard and crossed "Indiana" off with a marker. Teammate James Southerland started a chant of, "Howard, Howard." That reference was a nod to Triche's uncle, Howard Triche, frozen in time as the defensive player who couldn't block Keith Smart's shot at the end of the 1987 title game.
On a night where Syracuse's zone turned back the clock to 1996 and tried to chase away the ghosts of 1987, history collided dramatically with current events. A night that rekindled memories could also have provided some foreshadowing, as no one who watched Syracuse's dominating effort could have any trouble envisioning this team playing on Monday night in Atlanta.