Benjamin Franklin famously quipped that nothing in this world was certain, except death and taxes.
I would add that a third certainty exists, which is that as long as Jim Boeheim patrols the Syracuse sideline, the Orange will play the 2-3 zone.
The 2-3 zone, when employed properly, can be suffocating, frustrating and genius. Of course it takes more than just standing in position around the key, but you’ll have to read this column I wrote last year for the merits of Boeheim’s zone.
Noteworthy this year, are the changes that Boeheim’s zone will undergo, as opposed to last year. It will work the same in principle, but the results should be different, such as where the ball ends up and how it is outletted (I’m not sure if outletted is a word, but I’m going with it) off of turnovers.
Let’s take a look at what changes are in store for the heralded, yet despised, Syracuse 2-3 zone defense.
One of the great strengths of last year’s team was its incredible length. Across the baseline were Kris Joseph (6’7”), Fab Melo (7’0”) and C.J. Fair (6’8”).
This year, Fab Melo is gone and been replaced with 6’9” forward Rakeem Christmas.
You would think losing a 7’0” center would make a team a little shorter, but this team is actually three inches longer.
Joseph, Fair, Melo, Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche came in at a combined 393 inches, with Jardine being the shortest at 6’2”.
This season, Fair, Triche, Christmas, Michael Carter-Williams and DaJuan Coleman tip the scales at 396 inches, with Triche being the smallest at 6’4”.
Last year, first off the bench was Dion Waiters at 6’4”.
This year it will be either James Southerland at 6’8” or Baye Moussa Keita at 6’10”.
What does it mean?
Other than Coleman, all interested parties are extremely proficient at their job within the zone. Having more length at the top makes it harder to pass the ball inside-out, which is the proverbial way to beat the zone.
Plus, for the time being, Coleman can be hidden in the zone, or replaced with Keita, until he adapts to his new role.
The added length at the top could also lead to more long rebounds for the guards, being that most teams try to shoot over top of the zone as their weapon of choice.
This more balanced yet longer team should give opposing offenses problems as the year barrels forward.
This year’s squad only goes about seven deep, where last year’s team went ten deep.
Seven deep is more business as usual for coach Boeheim than last year, but a team as deep as last year’s is a problem most coaches would kill for.
Having less depth means that not only will the starters be a little wearier as the game rolls on, which can lead to sloppy fouls, but they will take less chances going for steals, without a second tier of bench players to give them rests or bail them out of foul trouble.
This year’s team will have to play a smarter brand of basketball, where steals will come more often from batted balls than they do from pick-pocketing.
There is little guard help coming off the bench, so again, the guards will not only take fewer chances, but I can guarantee there will be less stealing of the ball.
Last year, Dion Waiters would come off the bench and start a ruckus with quick steals and fast breaks.
There’s no such element this year.
Sure, Syracuse will fast break out of transition, but the breaks will be more outlet passes from the wings to breaking guards than lone guards robbing balls.
According to the Post-Standard, James Southerland and C.J. Fair could pull guard duty to make it easier on the front court’s workhorses.
That kind of length at the top of the zone would be a very different look.
Last year’s Orange team was third in the nation in steals, second in the nation in blocks and 15th in assists.
It was also tied for 124th in rebounding.
But here’s where the numbers lie. The only reason Syracuse didn’t rebound as much as other teams is that there weren’t that many balls to rebound.
Syracuse led the nation in points off of turnovers, which were from the aforementioned blocks and steals. All that blocking and stealing meant less shots.
Without Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters, Syracuse got a little slower, which may allow other teams to get into position to get more shots off.
Syracuse will rely more heavily on rebounding to create transition. You can still expect a fist full of blocked shots, but they won’t come as much from the middle without Fab Melo on patrol, leading to more balls going out of bounds as opposed to the center blocking the ball up to the guards for transition.
A drop in either steals or blocks should lead to a big increase in rebounding.
Physically stronger, that is.
Being tall is great, but adding density to the height is a recipe for success.
Rakeem Christmas is noticeably stronger. C.J. Fair has always been a little wiry, but looks to have put on a little more muscle. Same goes for Michael Carter-Williams.
Even DaJuan Coleman, seems to have cut the baby fat.
The bonus is that everyone is gaining lean muscle. Anyone who has ever tried weight training during basketball knows that changes to muscles can drastically change your shooting style.
Perhaps Brandon Triche, who has always been the muscle man of the team, is working the guys out.
Whatever it is, it’s working and the Orange being in better shape can only be a good thing.
More endurance leads to cleaner play, less chance for injury and more heady decisions on the court. Dedication to one's body often transcends to dedication and focus in other areas.
These "men" are still kids. It's easy to stay skinny when you're young. Improving one's self is hard work. This will most certainly translate in a positive way to the basketball court.