The Syracuse zone is back in all its glory and splendor. The Orange has returned to the Final Four for the first time in 10 years, and Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone has terrorized every opponent.
Let’s see. In this NCAA tournament against Syracuse, Montana shot 20.4 percent in an 81-34 loss, California shot 39.3 percent in a 66-60 loss, Indiana shot 33.3 percent in a 61-50 loss and Marquette shot 22.6 percent in a 55-39 loss. That’s four opponents, who combined have made 28.9 percent of their shots.
My radio colleague, Jim Traber, asked a very good question Monday. Why don’t more teams commit to the Syracuse zone? Why doesn’t a coach from mid-level Big 12 or SEC or Mountain West school fly to upstate New York, spend a day or two with Boeheim’s staff and seek to discover why the Syracuse zone is so effective?
I don’t know the answer, but I think I know. The Syracuse zone doesn’t just work because of the scheme. It works because of the scheme coupled with the kind of players Boeheim has. Long, tall, athletic. Guys with incredible wing spans, who might not be terribly skilled with the ball but can cover lots of ground quickly and lots of air space.
And remember two things: 1) the Syracuse zone is not always this effective; and 2) the Syracuse zone has not always been with us.
We tend to think of the Syracuse zone as being implemented a few weeks after James Naismith hung a peach basket. But not so. Even during Boeheim’s 36 years as the Syracuse head coach, the zone has made only sporadic appearances.
During a Final Four teleconference Monday, Boeheim offered some history on his use of the 2-3 zone.
Q. When did you start doing this zone exclusively? In the ’96 run (to the NCAA title game), were you doing all 2‑3 at that point?
Boeheim: Well, until ’96 we played some man every year. In the exhibition games, non‑conference games, even the conference games we played some man. We continued doing that probably up to ’03; ‘03 we pretty much played all zone, and after ’03 we still played some man, but it really probably hasn’t been until ’10, 2010, when we lost the exhibition game to Le Moyne, we just said, ‘We’re going to spend more time on our zone. We still spend some time man‑to‑man, but mostly it’s zone for the last two, three years, pretty much exclusively zone in all of our games.
Q. The way your team is playing it now, where does it compare with your best teams in terms of playing the zone?
Boeheim: We’ve played the zone the best that we played it probably in all the years we’ve been playing zone.
Q. What about this matchup with what Michigan has?
Boeheim: Michigan presents more problems than anybody in the tournament. They’re the best offensive team in the tournament. I think they were the best offensive team coming into the tournament, except their center hadn’t stepped up yet. Now their freshman center, (Mitch) McGary, has really stepped up. They’re a different team with his presence inside. He’s now in some games dominant. Before, he was not a factor. He’s a dominant offensive player. They still have the same guys on the perimeter. Each one of those guys can score 20 points in a night. There’s nobody on their team in that lineup that can’t score 20 points. Offensively they’re by far the biggest challenge we’ve had this year. We played some really good teams, but we haven’t played anybody as good offensively as Michigan.
Q. There’s been so much talk about your zone defense. One of the things your zone is doing well is blocking shots. Why do you think this particular team is so good at shot blocking?
BOEHEIM: Well, I think we have more guys. We’ve had one guy do it over the years in different situations. I think our forwards have blocked shots and our guard, Michael (Carter-Williams), is capable of blocking a shot. We’ve got two centers that can block shots. I think we’re just a little bit better there, although we’ve had some better individual shot‑blockers, I think our team is probably a little bit better.
Q. In ’96, was there a loss or something that happened in the season that triggered the move to the zone with exclusivity?
BOEHEIM: That was best for that team. We had played some man, and continued to play man after that up through probably 2010. We still played man‑to‑man at different times. I don’t think we went exclusively to zone until about 2010. But ’96, that particular team, we had the big guards. We weren’t very good man to man, but we were very good in our zone. So we used it exclusively. We tried to use man‑to‑man even in the tournament in the MontanaState game, first half against Drexel, then the coach finally got smart and played zone the rest of the way.