BUFFALO, N.Y. – With roughly a 39-hour turnaround, the Gonzaga Bulldogs go from facing the nation’s best field-goal percentage defense to tangling with the nation’s top field-goal percentage offense.
Not to mention an opponent with one of the more storied defenses – Syracuse’s active 2-3 zone – in college basketball. Not to mention the NCAA tournament second-round game will be played at HSBC Arena, roughly 150 miles from the Syracuse campus. Not to mention the Orange, regular-season Big East Conference champions, are the No. 1 seed in the West Region and were ranked No. 1 in the country until suffering a two-game losing streak heading into the NCAAs.
“We’re stepping into probably one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever had since I’ve been the head coach at Gonzaga,” said Mark Few, who compared it to last year’s clash with eventual national champion North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
Eighth-seeded Gonzaga (27-6) knocked off No. 9 Florida State 67-60 on Friday by shooting 50 percent against a Seminoles defense that led the nation in field-goal percentage (37.4). Syracuse’s zone produces similar numbers (No. 32 nationally at 39.9 percent). It’s a 2-3 in name, but the Orange stifle opponents with length and subtle adjustments to counter an opponent’s strengths.
Coach Jim Boeheim, in his 34th year at Syracuse, has relied on the defense to earn more than 800 career wins and 43 in the NCAA tournament, eighth all time.
“I think if you’re good against a zone, you’re good against a zone,” Boeheim said. “Our zone is a little better than some. I hope it’s a problem for people, but I think any good defense is a problem for people.”
Syracuse’s zone is a little like Mariano Rivera’s cut fastball. You know what’s coming, but that doesn’t make hitting it any easier.
“It looks like a matchup, our man-to-man basically (with) how Kris (Joseph) and Rick (Jackson) will be out on the wings,” forward Wes Johnson said. “How we move and talk in the zone really gets in their (opponents) mind. We’re moving around so much and it’s basically like a man but we cover our areas very well.”
Boeheim wasn’t buying into the notion that the zone plays mind games with foes, but he did allow that zones are somewhat rare these days.
“Georgetown shot 71 percent against us in the second half – I guess it didn’t get into their minds,” he cracked. “Not a lot of people play zone. … It’s a weapon that people don’t see.”
Gonzaga doesn’t want to fall into the trap of launching contested shots from the perimeter.
“It’s so successful because they’re so long and they are really active,” junior guard Steven Gray said. “They take a lot of things away. We can’t be afraid to get the ball inside and we don’t want to settle for outside jump shots. Take them when they’re there, but not settle because that leads to long rebounds and they’re such a good breaking team.”
And that leads to Gonzaga’s other challenge. Syracuse’s 51.7-percent shooting accuracy leads the nation. The Orange thumped No. 16 Vermont 79-56 on Friday, with 28 of those points coming in transition and/or off turnovers.
The Orange shot 54.5 percent, buried 10 3-pointers and won the boards by 11.
“If we can contain their transition,” Gray said, “our defense in the half-court is solid enough to make things tough for them.”
Johnson, a versatile 6-7 junior forward who was the Big East player of the year, averages a team-high 16 points and 8.4 rebounds. He makes 40 percent of his 3s and 78 percent at the free-throw line.
Add it up and Syracuse is probably the most complete team Gonzaga has faced this season.
“Michigan State was a great transition team, Cincinnati was a great offensive rebounding team,” Gray said. “We’ve faced the things Syracuse is going to throw at us, except maybe that zone, and our coaches have done a good job of simplifying the key concepts of what we need to do.”