ATLANTA – Some get paid millions to try and solve the riddle facing the Michigan coaching staff at the Final Four this weekend.
How do you score against the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense? Lately, there seems to be no answer.
More than any single player, it’s the amoeba-like creation crafted by Jim Boeheim over the past 37 seasons and honed to near perfection over the last month that’s turning into the team’s trademark.
With hundreds of college basketball’s brightest minds in town for a coaching convention that runs in tandem with the Final Four, the Associated Press picked out a handful and asked them this simple question: Given a week to game plan, how would you try to pick apart Syracuse?
“A week to prepare?” said Steve Robinson, a longtime assistant for North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who also had stints as a head coach at Tulsa and Florida State. “Some people haven’t been able to prepare for that and they’ve had all season.”
Take, for instance, Syracuse’s last opponent.
Last week in the regional final, Marquette’s Buzz Williams faced Boeheim’s defense for the seventh time since becoming head coach at the Big East school. The Golden Eagles scored 39 points on 12-for-53 shooting.
“We collectively tried everything we knew to try,” Williams said after that loss. “It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone.”
Not that he’s alone.
Syracuse is allowing 45 points a game and 27 percent shooting in the NCAA tournament, making some of the scoreboards look like vestiges from the pre-shot-clock era.
“The 2-3 zone is one of the most basic zones you face,” explains Miami’s Jim Larranaga, named Thursday as the Associated Press Coach of the Year. “What makes Syracuse’s zone is the players. They’re long, athletic and they cover a lot of ground. So, what appears to be an open shot is almost always going to be challenged by an outstanding athlete.”
Boeheim started with the 2-3 when he got the job at Syracuse in 1976. He started using it more in 1996 when 6-foot-8 forward John Wallace brought the Orange just one win shy of the national title. Syracuse won it all in 2003 with Carmelo Anthony leading the way but it was Hakim “The Helicopter” Warrick – the 6-8 forward with the 7-foot wingspan – who swooped from the middle of the zone to the wing to block a last-second shot and save a three-point victory for the Orange.
“Here’s a ‘5’ man coming out and blocking a shot in the corner,” Larranaga said. “Not many teams have players with that size and the athletic ability to make that kind of play.”
Syracuse played man sporadically over the ensuing years. But after giving up 50 second-half points playing that way in an exhibition loss to Division II LeMoyne in 2010, Boeheim went almost exclusively to zone.