How does the zone D affect Syracuse’s tourney chances?

In the most recent issue of ESPN The Magazine, Jay Bilas makes a strong argument for the 2-3 zone defense — Jim Boeheim’s zone D, that is. (Insider subscription required.)

So why don’t more coaches follow a strategy that has helped Boeheim win 800-plus games and a national title? It mostly comes down to myths and machismo. For instance, a common perception is that a 2-3 yields open three-pointers, and yet somehow Syracuse has held opponents to 30.6 percent shooting from deep this season, 36th in the nation. “When teams hit a few threes on Bob Knight’s man-to-man, nobody told him to get out of his defense,” Boeheim says. “They just needed to play it better. And if a team is beating our zone, we need to play it better.” Coaches also cite the fact that it’s tougher to rebound out of a zone than with man, but that’s a minor trade-off, especially since those offensive boards tend to be long ones that don’t lead to easy putbacks.

And the machismo? Many coaches believe that if they’re not running man-to-man they’re not coaching at all. They also worry about the blame game. Says UConn associate head coach George Blaney: “Jim Calhoun believes in man-to-man. The reasons are position, strength and that he can hold our defenders accountable.” But Boeheim understands his zone so well that he knows exactly who’s accountable, even if it’s hard for outsiders to see.

Heading into last weekend, I felt pretty good about picking Kentucky and Kansas to meet in the title game, but now I’m not so sure. Kentucky is young and has had mental lapses at times, while Kansas has looked pretty shaky in the few big games I’ve seen. I still think both teams have a terrific shot at the Final Four, but the more I see of Syracuse, the more I like the Orangemen.

I played for Bo Ryan at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and anyone who follows Wisconsin hoops knows that he wouldn’t touch a 2-3 with a ten-foot pole. He won all of those D3 championships with stingy man-to-man defense, and we would always fillet any teams that tried to zone against us, so the idea of sitting in a 2-3 generally doesn’t appeal to me.

But that’s just it — Syracuse doesn’t sit in a zone. They play a matchup 2-3 with man-to-man principles, which means there’s always a man pressuring the ball. It’s tough to prepare for because, no matter what, an opponent’s scout team isn’t going to be able to resemble Syracuse’s zone. It also eliminates about 90% of an opponent’s offensive playbook and reduces the mileage that players cover on defense, so they should have more energy for other parts of the game, like ball pressure, rebounding, and transition defense.

I think the problem with zone is that teams that play it sporadically aren’t very good at it, so the perception is that it’s ineffective. That’s where the rebounding becomes a major issue and shooters are inexplicably left open; players miss their assignments because they aren’t used to playing zone. But teams that play zone all the time — like Syracuse, John Chaney’s Temple squads, early ’90s UNLV — had plenty of athleticism and were extremely difficult to score on. Even Mike Krzyzewski — a devotee to tough man-to-man defense — has played some zone the last couple of seasons after spending time with Jim Boeheim as part of the duo’s Team USA duties.

Whether or not Syracuse makes the Finals may very well depend on their offense, not their defense. This year’s team is leading the Big East in FG% (52%) and is fourth from long range (38%). Their biggest offensive flaw is their inaccuracy at the free throw line (67%), which is worrisome, but not a deal-breaker.

They only have two losses all season. In early January, they lost to Pitt, shooting 1-13 from long range while allowing the Panthers to hit 10-24 from deep. They also lost to Louisville, who has beaten Syracuse five straight times. The two teams meet again on Saturday. If Syracuse can get a win there, and go into the NCAA tournament coming off a Big East Championship, I’m pretty sure they’ll be my pick to win a national title as well.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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