When Syracuse starts its season November 8, against Cornell, an old friend who never seems to age will be present. This friend has been seen at Syracuse games since the late ‘70s and was finally validated in 2003, according to the local gentry.
I am, of course, referring to the 2-3 zone.
Often imitated, but never duplicated, the Syracuse 2-3 zone has been a stifling weapon for as long as its biggest proponent, Jim Boeheim, has been patrolling the Syracuse sideline.
The 2-3 zone by itself is nothing to be feared. It is one of the first defenses any kid learns during pick-up games on the playground.
Whenever someone would ask, “Man or zone,” it was the 2-3 zone that was insinuated.
Naturally, the zone we played as children was a far cry from the zone implemented by Boeheim, which, when played well, is more difficult to navigate than the rush hour on the BQE.
So, if everyone is familiar with this defense and has decades worth of game tape to study, why is it so successful?
Part of the answer is Boeheim, but the strength is personnel.
Boeheim and staff have been tweaking and modifying the zone, but without the players that Boeheim and assistant Mike Hopkins have been recruiting, the zone wouldn’t nearly be as effective.
The most visible of the traits of prototypical Syracuse players is length. But speed, or rather, quickness, is just as important in the makeup of an Orange athlete.
To understand this, one must understand what makes the 2-3 zone work.
You can read this piece, which I wrote on the strengths of the Boeheim zone, but for brevity, I’ll just address a few major points.
A well played 2-3 zone dictates the path of the ball, as the ways to defeat it are limited. Prepared offenses will attack the zone from the foul line and try to force movement to get players open.
This is easier said than done because in order to get the ball inside, the ball must first move to one side of the court, or the other. This is where length becomes a weapon. As soon as the ball moves to the wing, Syracuse is able to cut the court in half by trapping the ball and using its length to prevent skip passes.
The offensive player can either try to force the ball to the post, which is guarded by the center, or get the ball back out to the point to reset the play. The quickness of Syracuse's players, combined with their length, closes passing lanes and often creates a turnover at the first hesitation of the offensive player.
The layman’s school of thought on the zone is that all a team needs to do is shoot over it to defeat it, but again, this is easier said than done. I would submit that any team that makes its shots can win. The trick is making the shots over the length of Syracuse.
Depending on the talent of the opposing team, Syracuse defenders will either stretch out to play shooters closer, or sink into the key when they don’t respect the shooter.
Syracuse’s length and quickness allows its defenders to still get out on shooters, but poor shooters find themselves forced into shooting because the passing lanes are clogged due to the defense lagging back.
In other words, an offense must earn the respect to be defended. When poor shooters are forced into shooting; the defense works.
Another great strength of the Syracuse zone is that teams cannot mimic it well enough to effectively practice against it. They may be able to match length or quickness, but usually not both.
Last year, with Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche at the top of the zone, the Orange had a devastating combination of length and quickness with MCW at 6’6” and Triche at 6’4”.
This season Syracuse remains stocked with length and quickness, for the most part.
At the top of the zone, Trevor Cooney, who is an able defender, will fill in Triche’s spot. At the point position, freshman Tyler Ennis will try to replace Carter-Williams.
Cooney matches Triche’s height, but Ennis gives up four inches to Carter-Williams, which, combined with Ennis’ lack of experience, could cause problems for the Orange. With the experience on the baseline, which includes seniors C.J. Fair and Baye Keita along with DaJuan Coleman, Jerami Grant and Rakeem Christmas, Ennis will likely be the point of attack for opposing offenses.
Syracuse fans will learn quickly if Ennis is a fast study or a liability.
Other than the unknown of Ennis, it should be business as usual for the 2013-14 Syracuse zone.
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