Brandon Triche and C. J. Fair defend against Pitt
The importance of the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense was made very clear to coach Jim Boeheim on the night of November 4, 2009.
The zone never left the bench, as the Orange played man-to-man the whole game. A game won by the Division II Le Moyne Dolphins, 82-79. It was Syracuse's first exhibition loss in six years.
Later that season, Joe Boeheim told the Dan Patrick Show (via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times) the story of his then-nine-year-old son Jack's reaction when he got home after the loss: "Dad, you stink. Your team stinks. How can you lose to Le Moyne?"
Now we know why Boeheim is so devoted to the zone. Well, that and the fact that he coaches it better than anyone else.
The Orange are preparing for the NCAA tournament and there is no question that they will go as far as the zone takes them.
How can the zone take the Orange deep into the tournament?
There are four ways and I've listed them in the order that I think reflects their importance.
I'm not exactly revealing any deep, dark secret by pointing out that the Orange don't shoot the ball very well. It seems to me that the closer to the basket the shooter can get, the better the chance he has of making the shot.
Syracuse's best offense starts with its defense. The Orange have always been a running team that loves to score in transition. That means run-outs that produce layups and dunks.
You can't run without turning the other team over.
The Orange were second in the Big East this season with 8.9 steals per game. There is a connection between stealing the ball and winning for Syracuse. In their 26 wins, the Orange averaged 9.6 steals. In their nine losses, they averaged only 6.9.
The undisputed leader of the Orange steal brigade is Michael Carter-Williams, who led the Big East with 2.7 steals per game. James Southerland was 15th with 1.4 per game.
The best offense for the Orange is an aggressive defense.
If the Orange struggle to win when they don't shoot well, it only stands to reason that they have a good chance to win when they make the other team miss shots.
Not surprisingly, the numbers support my hypothesis.
The Orange were second in the Big East in field-goal defense, holding opponents to 37.7 percent shooting. They were also second in three-point field-goal defense, allowing only 29.8 percent of attempts.
Earlier, we talked about your shooting percentage going up the closer you are to the basket. One of the advantages of the zone is that it forces the offense to shoot more from the outside, since it's tough to pass inside against a good zone.
Not surprisingly, the Orange faced 21.5 three-point attempts per game, the most in the Big East.
Another way to keep opposing field-goal percentages down is to block their shots. Syracuse excelled at that too.
The Orange were second in the Big East with 6.2 blocks per game. Rakeem Christmas was fifth in the league with 1.9 per game, Baye Moussa Keita was 11th with 1.1, C.J. Fair was 13th with 1.0 and James Southerland chipped in with 0.9.
Keeping the ball out of the basket generally wins basketball games.
We've looked at a lot of numbers so far to help understand how the 2-3 zone can help take the Orange deep into the NCAA tournament.
Some things can't be measured.
The way the Orange aggressively play the zone messes with the other team's mind. It doesn't matter how much film study it puts in. It doesn't matter how much time it puts in practicing against its version of the Syracuse 2-3.
It can't simulate the length at the top of the zone, where 6'6" Michael Carter-Williams and 6'4" Brandon Triche wreak havoc. It can't simulate the court coverage of long, athletic wings like 6'8" forwards C.J.Fair, James Southerland and Jerami Grant.
It looks like there's no room out there for the offense. The attacking zone plays with the other team's head and forces it to play out of sync.
We've seen how bad that can be for an offense, as the Orange played a stretch of games horrifically out of sync offensively.
With about 15 minutes left in the Big East Championship Game against Louisville, the Orange led the Cardinals 45-29. A foul changed the game.
Orange sharpshooter James Southerland picked up his fourth foul, putting him on the bench. From that point on, Louisville outscored the Orange 49-16 and ran away with the championship, 78-61.
That being said, one of the ways the 2-3 zone can take the Orange deep into March Madness is that it does actually help keep players out of foul trouble.
By guarding an area instead of a man, defensive players are less likely to pick up fouls. Syracuse may have nine scholarship players, but there are four critical ones.
Southerland's stint on the bench and the Orange's subsequent collapse were certainly related. Syracuse will exit the tournament early if Southerland, C.J. Fair, Michael Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche are sitting on the bench with foul trouble.
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