There are two ways to beat a 2-3 zone.
One is to attack the creases, make the defense collapse and force the rotation to get someone on the court an open shot—preferably a layup or interior shot since the middle of the zone is usually its weakest point.
The other is to shoot a team out of it.
The Indiana Hoosiers won't have the luxury of getting Syracuse out of the 2-3 zone on Thursday night in the Sweet 16 of the 2013 NCAA tournament, but timely shooting and controlling the pace from the outset will once again be the key to slowing down Jim Boeheim's patented zone attack .
No. 1 seed Indiana (29-6), will take on No. 4 Syracuse (28-9) on Thursday night in Washington, D.C. The game will have a special meaning for the Orange for two reasons; One, because the team only scored 39 points in a late-season loss to Georgetown on the upcoming court site, and two, because the last time these two teams met in the tournament, Keith Smart made history.
But those facts pale in comparison to the task at hand for Indiana.
The Hoosiers have to contend with the length of Syracuse in the 2-3 zone, the conundrum of having to figure out how to not adjust their offense to the point of being ineffective and the trouble of only having a few days to prepare for a defensive scheme that they haven't seen all season.
As noted by Bud Poliquin of Syracuse.com, the Hoosiers are certainly going to be wary of the Orange, especially after watching the zone cause problems for both Montana and California in the first two Syracuse tournament games.
Head coach Tom Crean—who spent some considerable time with Marquette before coming to Indiana—is very familiar with the Orange's 2-3 zone. His players, however, are not, and it's going to be a big key to this ballgame for Indiana to avoid turnovers and remain productive against a team that can make an open shot turn into a blocked shot as fast as any team in the country.
One of the ways to do that is with ball movement.
Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News notes that the Hoosiers are going to have to be both patient and intelligent against the zone, and ball movement will be a big part of that end game.
While avoiding turnovers and stupid mistakes are all a big part of taking down the zone, you can't win games if you don't score points. That makes shooting the ball important, too, something that Indiana hasn't done very well over the past few games.
Look no further than a 5-of-17 performance in the team's last loss—in the Big Ten tournament against Wisconsin—to see that Indiana has limped into this portion of the season with its outside shooting.
It continued against Temple in the round of 32, as Indiana shot only 4-of-13 from the outside. That number would have been worse, but Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo hit two timely threes down the stretch to help make Khalif Wyatt's 31 point game go for naught.
Oladipo, the Wooden award candidate, hit the biggest shot of the game for the Hoosiers, but an opportunity for more heroics will be hard to come by if Indiana waits until late in the second half to come alive against Syracuse.
Timely shooting will beat a zone. It forces most teams to adjust, but for the most part, it makes Syracuse uncomfortable and overaggressive—which leads to open lanes for dunks and big plays.
In particular, look for Sheehey and Jordan Hulls to be the biggest X-factors for the Hoosiers. Sheehey came up big off the bench after Hulls sustained a shoulder injury against Temple, but the pair has to shoot better than it has of late to help open up more gaps and creases in the zone.
To get even more specific, it's hard to imagine Indiana surviving a poor shooting day from Hulls. Sure, the young man might not be 100 percent, but he will likely get the most open looks in the offensive sets in part because there will be a mob around Zeller inside and Kevin Ferrell will be tasked with penetration to get open looks to shooters.
That makes Hulls, Sheehey and Christian Watford the men of the hour against the Orange, and their efforts in making Syracuse contest the outside shot will be big in determining what kind of offense Crean can use down the stretch and what kind of pressure Boeheim uses to deter the Hoosiers in the second half.
Playing against zones is never fun if you are out of practice. While some players drool over the chance to shoot and shoot and shoot to get a team out of the zone, there's something to be said for a team that understands that timely shots are how to beat a zone.
Instead of the one-pass-and-shoot offense that some teams fall in love with against Syracuse, expect Crean's team to be focused on getting the ball to the high post, attacking gaps for penetration and kicking to open shooters on the outside.
After that, it's up to the shooter.