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.

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G-town’s furious comeback falls short

The 10th-ranked Hoyas were down 23 points in the second half against #5 Syracuse, but poor free throw shooting down the stretch (4-9 in the last 5:31) did them in. The Orangemen held on to win, 75-71.

#3 Syracuse nips UConn amidst controversy

With the game tied and 0:38 to play, Syracuse attempted a shot and Rick Jackson grabbed the offensive rebound. Sophomore Scoop Jardine got the ball and unwisely attacked the hoop. He didn’t realize that Syracuse could run the clock down. As he was driving, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim called a timeout and the ref actually blew the whistle after the ball left Jardine’s hand.

It could very well have been UConn’s ball, but some leeway needs to be given to the ref. If he saw Boeheim signal for a timeout before the ball left Jardine’s hand, then there is going to be some lag time between that moment and when he blew the whistle and stopped play. Boeheim clearly was signaling for a timeout as Jardine started his drive, so the right call was made.

When Jardine came back to the huddle, even the worst lip-reader could see what Boeheim said to him:

“You know I just saved your a** right there. You don’t know what the f**k you’re doing, do you? You know you almost lost the f**king game for us.”

Boeheim looks like a professor, but curses like a sailor.

UConn stupidly fouled on the inbounds play — Stanley Robinson actually grabbed Wesley Johnson’s jersey right in front of the official — and Syracuse went on to win the game, 73-67.

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Another big Saturday in sports

We’re in that sweet spot in the sports calendar when the NFL playoffs are going on and there are some good in-conference matchups in college hoops. Here’s a quick look at what’s on tap for Saturday. (All times Eastern.)

12 PM: #5 Syracuse @ #9 West Virginia (ESPN)
2 PM: #18 Georgia Tech @ #13 North Carolina (ESPN)
4:30 PM: Cardinals @ Saints (Fox)
8:15 PM: Ravens @ Colts (CBS)

That’s not a bad lineup at all.

Four observations about the South Region

1. North Carolina has a tough road ahead.
With Ty Lawson at less than 100%, the Tar Heels could be in trouble as soon as Saturday. The LSU/Butler winner is capable of springing the upset, and if both teams advance, #4 Gonzaga could give UNC all it can handle in the Sweet Sixteen. Later on, potential matchups with Syracuse or Oklahoma loom large. With Lawson healthy, they shouldn’t have a problem, but if the ACC POY is gimpy, don’t be surprised if UNC goes down before the Final Four. In fact, expect it.

2. This might be Gonzaga’s best team yet.
Stat guru Ken Pomeroy has the Bulldogs pegged as the fifth best team heading into the tournament, ahead of bigger names like Pittsburgh and Duke. Gonzaga goes eight deep, but Mark Few relies mainly on six players who all average at least 9.2 points per game. Those six players are all legitimate three-point threats as well, with four shooting better than 39% from long range on the season. The Bulldogs are extremely efficient both offensively and defensively, which is why Pomeroy loves them so much.

3. Syracuse/Arizona State should be a doozy.
If they both manage to win their first round games, a second round Orangemen/Sun Devils matchup should be fun. Despite losing to Louisville in the Big East Championship final, Syracuse is one of the hottest teams in the country, but only time will tell if the 35 overtime minutes they played against Syracuse and West Virginia eventually takes its toll. Since they play so much zone defense, it shouldn’t be much of a factor, and it’s not like point guard Jonny Flynn gets tired anyway. ASU has been up and down lately, but they played well in the Pac-10 tournament before blowing a 15-point lead in a loss to USC. The Sun Devils depend on James Harden (20.8 ppg) to score, so it will be interesting to see if Syracuse’s zone can slow him down. Regardless, Herb Sendek has done a terrific job in his short tenure at ASU. I wonder if NC State regrets letting him go…

4. The Illini should be aware of the long ball.
Western Kentucky’s A.J. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez average better than 5.0 made threes per game between them, and along with Steffphon Pettigrew, the Hilltoppers’ top three scorers all shoot at least 37% from long range. If Illinois comes out and lays an offensive egg like they did against Minnesota (36 points) and Penn State (33 points) earlier in the year, Western Kentucky will pull the upset.

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