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Famed Syracuse 2-3 zone defense gives opponents fits

Gonzaga’s and Syracuse’s defenses haven’t taken a back seat through two NCAA tournament games to any of the remaining 14 teams.

Gonzaga does it primarily with an improving man-to-man and an occasional zone. The Zags have allowed 111 points, third lowest of Sweet 16 squads.

Syracuse does it almost entirely with a 2-3 zone. Opponents know it is coming, study, prepare and often struggle to reach their customary offensive production. The Orange have yielded a tournament-low 101 points. Wisconsin is next at 106.

“It reminds me a little of when I worked for coach (Billy) Tubbs at TCU,” said Montana State coach Brian Fish, whose team lost 82-60 to the Orange in December. “Those guys worry about what they do and a lot less about what the other team does.”

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has rarely strayed from the zone en route to one national championship, four Final Fours and 18 Sweet 16s. He matches recruiting with his offensive and defensive philosophies.

“Back in the day (Temple’s) John Chaney used a lot of zone, (Princeton’s) Pete Carril, you see some with (Chris) Mooney at Richmond,” ESPN’s Seth Greenberg said. “In the Power 5 conferences, it’s few and far between. Oregon, Villanova do some. (Louisville’s Rick) Pitino, but his stuff is hybrid, (Cincinnati’s) Mick Cronin.

“This is who Jim is. They get in passing lanes and their guards get over every screen, which is unbelievable but he always has big, physical guards.”

It’s difficult for foes to duplicate Syracuse’s size, athleticism and length in practice with backups and scout-team players.

The Zags ran into No. 1-seeded Syracuse in the 2010 tournament and probably had more trouble with Syracuse’s offense than defense, falling 87-65. Elias Harris and Robert Sacre both connected on 8 of 12 shots but the rest of the Zags were 9 for 36. Guards Matt Bouldin (3 for 13) and Steven Gray (3 for 11) had tough shooting nights. GU made 14 percent of its 3-point attempts.

“We just don’t see that, a team playing 40 minutes of zone,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It’s just different. You don’t have the rhythm you have when you’re running man offense. You have to adjust and be comfortable with that.”

Dayton, averaging 73 points per game, managed 51 in a first-round loss to Syracuse. Middle Tennessee, also averaging 73 and coming off a 90-point outing against second-seeded Michigan State, scored 50.

Middle Tennessee’s task was made tougher with just one day to prepare.

“Like we all do, we tried to get it to the wing and unbalance the zone and then make one more pass but their wings get out and up where you can’t throw it to the corner,” coach Kermit Davis said. “If you can get to their bench … we couldn’t. I forget how many post touches we had but we got it to the rim all night. They blocked 11 shots.”

Davis and Greenberg said Gonzaga’s personnel could be problematic for the Orange. Domantas Sabonis is an effective low-block and mid-range scorer and a tireless rebounder, the latter one of the zone’s weaknesses. Kyle Wiltjer hits 43 percent of his 3s and can be moved around to try to find soft spots in the zone.

Greenberg also noted that Syracuse’s personnel doesn’t quite compare to Boeheim’s strongest teams.

The Zags have handled zones in limited time this season. They are in the top three percentile nationally, shooting 48.5 percent, 60.5 percent effective field-goal percentage (factoring in 3-point success), according to one stat service. They also rank highly in spot-up shooting and post-up versus zones.

Numbers-cruncher Ken Pomeroy lists Syracuse as the 22nd most efficient defense, 7th in steals percentage but just 337th in defensive rebounding. The Orange are plus-22 rebounding in two tourney games.

“Their two guards at the top of the zone get a lot of steals so we have to be really strong with the ball,” Gonzaga guard Silas Melson said. “We’re going to try to utilize the same things we’ve been doing this year, Wiltjer and Domas, stretching the floor with Wiltjer.”

Montana State made only seven first-half field goals before putting up 43 points in the second half, many coming in transition.

“You’re going to get shots, but it’s like a team that presses,” Fish said. “It gets so much of your attention and you end up practicing for it, you kind of create a little worry inside the guys’ brains. Once we settled in we played them within 4-6 points but the first 20 minutes we were so spread out that it got to us.”

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