Syracuse Basketball: Why Jim Boeheim's 2-3 Zone Defense Is so Effective
Whether playing pickup basketball or watching a big game on TV, most hoop fans can identify a 2-3 zone defense when they see it. Even if they don’t know it’s a 2-3, they will probably at least know the difference between a man-to-man defense and a zone defense.
Diehards will know that over the past 30-plus years, two coaches have been masters of the zone defense: Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, with the 2-3 zone and former Temple coach John Chaney, with the matchup zone.
Both styles are effective, as teams do not generally practice to play the zone. But the matchup zone can be attacked in exponentially more ways due to the movement of its pieces being dependant on each offensive player, whereas the 2-3 zone has only a handful of ways that it can be attacked and does not concentrate on the offensive players as much as it moves along with where the ball is on the court and where it may end up.
I asked my girlfriend, who actually played a little basketball in high school, if she knew what a 2-3 zone was, and her response was that it was a zone that wasn’t as good as a "1-zone."
With Syracuse being the top-ranked team in the NCAA, its 2-3 zone defense will be the focus of broadcasters, journalists and sports fans alike. This seems to be the perfect time to go through the talking points and merits of the 2-3 zone and why it is such a powerful weapon for Jim Boeheim.
The 2-3 Zone Dictates the Offense
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As I alluded in the opening, the ways that a 2-3 zone can be attacked are limited. It’s not an impregnable defense, but the longer the length of the players, the harder it is to penetrate.
Teams that can shoot the three often believe that they have the key to beating the 2-3 by shooting over it. An accurate three-point shooting night is an effective way to beat a zone, but it’s easier said than done.
Take the Florida-Syracuse game on December 2.
Florida came in as one of the best three-point shooting squads in the country, shooting 43 percent from behind the arc as a team. Because of the positioning of the 2-3, it is difficult to get good looks from the three.
Florida managed to go 3-14 from behind the line in the first half and managed only 9-26 for the game, with four of the second-half threes coming when the game’s outcome was virtually decided and out of reach for the Gators.
Florida’s approach was that it could throw the ball at the hoop and hope that some shots would fall. The Gators' problem was that their shots were contested, and they did not know how to move the ball in and out of the zone to get good looks.
This starts with getting an offensive player positioned at the free-throw line with his back to the basket and running the point from there. This, of course, is easier said than done. But it is an essential part of beating the 2-3. Once the ball is moved to the free-throw line, the two guards at the top of the zone have to come in, which allows a man to get freed up at the three.
This is an oversimplified version of running an offense against a zone, but it was obvious that Florida did not know what it was doing and hoped it could just shoot its way over it. Unless the shots fall, and they usually don’t, this is a bad approach to attacking the zone.
Teams that play against the zone have to prepare for the zone, whereas the team playing the zone just has to keep doing what it’s doing.
Fast-Break Opportunities Happen Early and Often
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Playing the 2-3 allows players to use their intuition when playing defense. The 2-3 will move as a cohesive unit depending on how the ball is moved around the court.
This often causes predictable results, because the ball can only move to so many places on the court depending on how the defense is placed. Knowing this allows players in the zone to cheat, because within the zone, a teammate can make a temporary adjustment to allow for an aggressive defender to go after a lazy or telegraphed pass.
Syracuse leads the NCAA in steals because of this aspect. The Orange are so good at executing their positions that they have gained a sixth sense as to how the ball will travel.
Well, it may not be E.S.P., but it certainly is good coaching.
The other side of the fast-break coin is defensive rebounding. The zone forces a lot of bad shots, which in turn allows the three low-post players, who are already in good rebounding positions, to get the ball to an outlet player, who should be in position to break because of his defensive spot at the top of the key.
Steals and rebounding allow for fast breaks which allows for big runs in games. This is especially evident this year with Syracuse, which hasn’t experienced a game this season in which it didn’t go on a lop-sided run at some point in the game.
Only Teams That Play a Good 2-3 Can Prepare for a Good 2-3
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Teams don’t generally prepare for a 2-3 zone because most teams do not play an effective 2-3 that needs to be prepared for.
Another problem teams have is that they can practice all day about how to position the ball to attack the 2-3 zone, but without knowing how to mimic the zone in practice, teams can be misled into thinking they are prepared for it.
It’s like trying to prepare to play the Green Bay Packers' offense. If a team doesn’t have someone who can mimic Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packer offensive players, it’s just a guessing game and a lot of film-room study. These are hardly substitutes.
Rick Pitino of Louisville has had a healthy amount of success against the Syracuse zone. Besides the fact that Pitino is one heck of a coach, he was an assistant of Boeheim’s and has a fantastic understanding of the 2-3 zone’s strengths and weaknesses and has continuously exploited them.
Forgetting the Pitinos of the world, and there aren’t many of them, coaches are at a loss for how to beat the 2-3—at least, a well-executed 2-3—because they don’t fully understand how to coach it themselves.
The 2-3 Zone Can Hide a Subpar Defender
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This has more to do with the low-post players, but a 2-3 zone can hide a bad defender because his focus is his position on the court rather than following an offensive player. This can keep him out of foul trouble, too.
A bad defender often commits fouls when tired or left to his own devices. The nature of the zone prevents a defensive player from having to cover large spaces on the court, keeping his legs fresher than someone playing man-to-man defense, which in turn, helps diminish stupid fouls caused by fatigue.
Getting to the inside of the 2-3 zone is a task in and of itself. The 2-3 clogs the middle, making it difficult to get the ball in the paint without some very good ball movement.
A subpar defender can be inserted to give better players rest without being a detriment to the team. It’s true that more than one bad defender could spell disaster for a 2-3, but one in the middle can be masked at minimal damage.
The 2-3 Zone Promotes Awareness
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A well-executed 2-3 zone isn’t five moving parts, but one cohesive unit. Each player must react to where the ball is on the court and how each of his teammates reacts to the ball.
A player who moves out of position or “falls asleep” will be quickly exploited (and also quickly yanked).
The 2-3 zone feeds off of players' intuition and positioning. Player movements are not wasted, rather they are well thought out. The 2-3 zone is college basketball’s version of the wingman, except there are five wingmen.
Taking a look at the Syracuse zone, it creates traps and turnovers because it is one unit attacking a player. As the ball moves around the perimeter, the 2-3 zone essentially becomes a defensive press, with the distances shortened to create more opportunities for turnovers.