A Look at Syracuse's 2-3 Zone vs. Man-to-Man Defense Dilemma

Jameson FlemingSenior Writer IFebruary 22, 2009

It seems like Syracuse has played the 2-3 zone since before the invention of the telegraph. Someone will probably figure out how to make the telegraph relevant once again before the Orange consistently stops playing the 2-3 (both will probably never happen).

But it needs to happen. And by happen, I mean now. Point guard Jonny Flynn has said multiple times he loves playing man-to-man defense. He says this for good reason.

Flynn stated in the past that man-to-man defense increases the intensity of the game; it gets his team more focused and in-tuned. The constant activity of the man defense keeps your head in the game on both ends of the floor.

The 2-3 zone breeds inexcusable, lethargic play. In the man-to-man, when a player screws up, he knows it, his team knows it, and everyone watching knows it. Players must tune themselves into the game completely or else the opposition will probably pick up an easy look at the basket.

While the man-to-man defense increases the importance of a team's intangibles, it is also will specifically help Syracuse function in terms of x's and o's.

The Orange is a below average defensive team. It's hard to debate that. This current core group of players began playing together last season and allowed .943 points per possession, good for a mediocre 65th in the country.

This season, the team on paper should be better defensively, but simply isn't. After the Villanova game, 'Cuse allows .948 points per possession in 2009 which is still only 60th in the country. Final Four teams typically rank within the top 25 in defensive efficiency.

A common idea thrown around about this team is Syracuse has Final Four talent. Even if the Orange actually has the talent, they don't have the defense.

There will be times that Syracuse should play zone and there are plenty of times that Jim Boeheim should impose the man-to-man defense.

Against poor perimeter shooting teams like Memphis, Seton Hall, Louisville, etc..., the zone is a perfect fit. The best way to shred the zone is with quick ball movement that usually creates a wide open three-point attempt.

Teams that have multiple options that can drill the long ball torch Syracuse. Squads like the Tigers, Pirates, and Cardinals who lack consistent three-point shooting can't score a lick against the zone.

The new three point line has also spread the zone defense out by another foot. This allows offenses two new ways to beat the zone. Few teams possess rare talent like Villanova has in Dante Cunningham.

The 'Nova forward can hit turn around jumpers from all the soft spots in the zone. With the defense spread, those soft spots open just a little bit more allowing players like Cunningham to score from the underbelly of the defense.

The second problem a slightly more spread out defense creates is defensive rebounding. It's already hard to rebound while playing a zone defense, but when the defense is spread out another foot, it becomes even harder. The 'Cuse allows teams to rebound 35.1 percent of their misses which is 261st in the country.

To put that number into perspective, last year with a very similar core of players, the Orange ranked 122nd in the country in defensive rebounding.

The problem Syracuse possesses is in the games it should be playing man-to-man, the Orange struggles in the man defense. Defensively this team is poor no matter what it plays man or zone.

But there is a big BUT to that statement for two reasons. 

The first is a generalization, but a logical one at that. The more man-to-man defense this team plays, the better it should get. Syracuse is built to play man defense. There isn't a lot of length on this current 'Cuse squad which hurts the effectiveness of the zone. When looking back at the great SU defensive teams of the past, those teams are filled with long bodies.

Glue guy Kristof Ongenaet is relatively useless in a 2-3 zone. He makes his name helping his teammates out, coming from the weakside to deflect passes and block shots. He's a solid rebounder with a nose for the ball.

Offensively, the Orange operates the best when it is out and running. When the 'Cuse can score in transition or generally just push the basketball and dictate its tempo of play, the Orange puts points on the board in a hurry.

Unfortunately, running and gunning is nearly impossible in the zone. Forcing turnovers is more difficult and bad passes against a zone usually end up as balls thrown out of play or deflected by a defender of play. When in man, those passes are more likely to be grabbed by a defender. Turnovers kept in bounds usually lead to run outs and easy baskets.

Man-to-man defense also allows teams to rebound better, but also allow teams to set up out-let passes easier. Quicker ball movement at the change of the possession equals a few more transition opportunities.

Sunday's game against Villanova is a prime example of the man-to-man vs. zone defense dilemma. In the first eight minutes while playing a zone defense, the Orange offense was completely stagnant, scoring just 12 points in eight minutes. The defense was just as bad allowing 22 points. 'Nova was on pace to drop 120.

Jim Boeheim usually moved away from his trademark zone quite quickly at the under 12 minute timeout and things changed quickly for the 'Cuse. SU scored 28 points in the final 12 minutes of the half while 'Nova's scoring paced dropped from three minutes per minute to just under two per minute. Still bad defense, but the offense was noticeably better.


Because SU was finally forcing turnovers and grabbing defensive rebounds. The 'Cuse sped up the tempo of play and made the Wildcats play Orange basketball. Even though the Orange didn't win the game playing man-to-man, it was pretty clear after eight minutes, the 'Cuse was likely going to be blown out if it stayed in the zone.

So if a team is going to be bad defensively, then why not play the defense that will springboard the team offensively?