Why Is Syracuse the Lone Pioneer of Zone Defense?

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Why Is Syracuse the Lone Pioneer of Zone Defense?

College basketball is a copycat society.

It's why famous coaches make instructional videos. If you're successful, others will imitate. Might as well make a dime in the process!

Bob Knight’s motion offense, Pete Carril’s Princeton offense and Rick Pitino’s full-court press are just three examples. All over college basketball, you will find variations of schemes and systems that at one time were innovative. Copyright laws do not exist on the hardwood.

That brings us to one of the more perplexing question in college basketball: Why don’t more teams play a 2-3 zone defense?

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s as if Syracuse's Jim Boeheim is the lone legendary basketball coach with a patent on what made him successful.

Sure, other teams may use it from time to time. Some use it as a gimmick or only go zone against baseline out-of-bounds plays. Some go zone to hide a player in foul trouble. Some use it as an element of surprise out of a timeout. You’ll see Pitino, who spent two years at Syracuse as Boeheim’s assistant, drop his team back into a zone from its press, but that’s more out of convenience than anything else.

Rarely do you see anyone play zone every possession of every game. Even Boeheim said this week that he mixed in some man-to-man before going exclusively zone in 2010. So I set out on a mission this week. Is anyone else in college basketball willing to stick to the zone? And what’s the hesitation?

 

In Search of the Zone

Ken Pomeroy has come up with a system for identifying what type of defense a team plays without studying the film. 

Pomeroy emailed me this week that his data spit out three teams that played as much or more zone as Syracuse this season: Eastern Michigan, Southern Miss and East Tennessee State.

No surprise that Eastern Michigan pops up on the list. Coach Rob Murphy spent seven seasons on Boeheim’s staff. Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall and East Tennessee State coach Murry Bartow, however, do not have any ties to Boeheim. They are the rare breed who has decided to go zone all on their own.

"A lot of times it comes down to comfort level of coaches, and certainly a lot of us in this profession have been raised and brought up playing man-to-man," Bartow said in a phone interview. "I know certainly my background was as a man-to-man coach, then I started tinkering some with the zone. The last couple years, we've gone to a lot more zone." 

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

 

Why the Hesitation?

So, as Bartow stated, sticking to what you know is why most coaches do not experiment. The other obvious answer is fear of the three. Go zone, and you’re going to give up a lot of them.

This table shows the percentage of field-goal attempts allowed from beyond the arc and the three-point percentage for each of the zone teams. (For comparison, the national average shows that 33 percent of attempts came from beyond the arc this year and teams shot an average of 33.9 percent.)


3PA/FGA 3-point %
Syracuse 40.2 28.2
Eastern Michigan 43.6 29.7
East Tenn. St. 43.0 37.2
Southern Miss 46.9 32.9

 

For Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, the gamble was well worth the risk this year. Watch enough Syracuse, however, and it’s not really a gamble to give up so many three-point attempts. Mostly, they are contested.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

"It's pretty obvious," Bartow said. "If you've got guys with good length, it helps."

What has made Boeheim’s zone so effective is he recruits to the system.

One of the most effective ways to beat a zone is to get the ball to the middle of the floor near the free-throw line. Syracuse puts Michael Carter-Williams, a 6’6” point guard, at the top, and his length makes it difficult to make that pass. Carter-Williams has 109 steals this season, and if deflections were a measured statistic, he would likely be one of the national leaders.

On the wings, Boeheim has two rangy 6’8” forwards, C.J. Fair and James Southerland. Both can get to shooters quickly and disrupt shots.

The most famous example of this took place in the 2003 national title game, when Kansas guard Michael Lee had a shot to tie the game, Hakim Warrick closed quickly and blocked Lee’s attempt.

Then in the middle, Boeheim always has a big body adept at blocking shots. This season that is 6’9” Rakeem Christmas, who blocks 11.1 percent of opponents' two-point attempts when he’s on the court.

“It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said on Sunday after his team shot 22.6 percent in a 55-39 loss to the Orange.

Murphy, who has only been at Eastern Michigan for two seasons, adapted his roster quickly following the Boeheim model. He started three transfers this season who fit his D—6’8” Glenn Bryant, 6’6” Daylen Harrison and seven-footer DaShonte Riley. Riley followed Murphy from Syracuse.

Plug them into the system, and it spits out the results. Eastern Michigan ranked fourth in block percentage, and Syracuse ranked first.

East Tennessee State and Southern Miss did not have the length or the shot-blocking prowess—ranking 326th and 339th, respectively, in Pomeroy’s effective height measure—and it’s no surprise their opponents had better results from beyond the arc.

 

The Benefits of the Zone

Maybe the difficulty to consistently recruit lengthy athletes to fit the zone is the reason we don’t see it more. But the benefits are not just in keeping the ball out of the paint and forcing threes; the zone is also an effective way to force turnovers.

The average team this season forced a turnover on 20 percent of opponents’ possessions, according to Pomeroy's numbers. Here are the defensive numbers for the four zone teams.


Turnover rate
Syracuse 23.6
Eastern Michigan 22.7
East Tenn. St. 21.1
Southern Miss 24.3

 

Across the board, the numbers are down for East Tennessee State.

"This year, bottom line, we just did not have as good a team so our numbers were down," Bartow said. 

At 10-22, Bartow had his worst team in nine seasons at East Tennessee State, and he’s had plenty of success. The Buccaneers have been to three NCAA tournaments under Bartow, and a year ago his team ranked third in the country in turnover percentage at 25.8 percent.

Why would a defense that sits back and waits on the offense create so many giveaways?

"Sometimes in the zone, passing angles look open wherever you're at on the court, and it can kind of be distorted because it may not be open," Bartow said. 

The other part of the equation is unfamiliarity. Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins told USA Today:

The biggest thing is, if you a play a team like, say, Indiana, they might have 80 man-to-man plays. Most teams that you play might have three or four zone offenses. … You don't see it a lot. It gives you a little bit of an advantage. Our adjustments we can make on the fly, based on how people attack us. We've seen everything.

Boeheim does have 37 years of data collection at his fingertips, and his current squad might be his finest experiment to date.

The Orange have dominated this tournament with their defense. In four tournament games, opponents shot 15.2 percent from three, made 39.2 percent of twos and Syracuse has forced 65 turnovers and blocked 27 shots.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Orange are allowing 0.72 points per possession during this stretch. The best defensive team by points per possession this season, Stephen F. Austin, allowed 0.84 for the season.

Those kinds of numbers beg for imitation. But don’t expect a change across college basketball. It’s not like we’re just now seeing this defense be successful.

Syracuse remains the only BCS school that lives, thrives and rarely dies by the zone. As Hopkins told USA Today:

Coach is like, 'We're going to do it, and you're going to have to figure it out. You get your best chess game, I'll bring my best chess game.'

There's a reason he's won 900 and whatever games. He's a genius. … He doesn't get caught up in people saying, you need to play more man or you need to do that. That's what makes him special. A lot of people wouldn't have the strength, toughness or thickness of skin to not change. He knows what he wants and he does it.

And the rest of college basketball marvels at its success, unwilling to duplicate it. 

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