NORMAN — Readily available on DVD or VHS: "Jim Boeheim’s Complete Guide to the 2-3 Zone Defense.” Shipping and handling is not included in the $39.95 asking price, but according to product advertising, "secrets” and even tips on beating the Syracuse zone are part of the package.
Money well spent? For Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, yes, long ago. "That’s how I learned it, how I learned to teach it,” Capel said. Now Capel gets to put his translation skills to the test, with his Sooners set to meet Boeheim and Syracuse on Friday in a Sweet 16 matchup in Memphis. Perhaps no team is more defined by defense as Syracuse is to the zone. It’s the Orange identity. "That’s Syracuse’s primary defense, so I expect them to be very good at what they do,” said OU guard Willie Warren. And nobody, it seems, does the 2-3 zone quite like Syracuse. Fans around here got acquainted with Orange tactics in 2003, when Syracuse plowed through four Big 12 teams — including Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — on the way to the national championship. The Sooners, the No. 1 seed in the region that year, struggled mightily against the Orange, falling 63-47. OU shot just 17.9 percent (5-for-28) from the arc and committed 19 turnovers, uncharacteristic for a team that was best in the Big 12 in both categories during the regular season. Boeheim, a winner of 799 games in 33 years at Syracuse, swears by the zone, lives by the zone and occasionally dies by the zone when it all doesn’t add up. There were times this season when the Orange’s vaunted defense seemed in decline, surrendering 88 to Georgetown, 100 to Providence, 102 and 89 to Villanova — all losses during a stretch of seven setbacks in 10 games. But Syracuse righted itself, and its defense, to win nine of 10 in getting here. In Sunday’s win over Arizona State, they forced the Sun Devils into 35 3-pointers and held All-America guard James Harden to 10 points on 2-of-10 shooting. "They’ve got great athletes, and they’re long and lean and sometimes it looks like they stretch from sideline to sideline with their arms spread,” said former OSU coach Eddie Sutton, who went 2-1 against Syracuse with the Cowboys. "So psychologically, sometimes it doesn’t look like you can get the ball into the heart of the defense or even down to the baseline.” Sutton, after a pause, allowed, "But you can.” And that’s OU’s charge: finding a way to feed the ball to Blake Griffin inside. Ball movement around the edge of the zone, prompting quick entry passes to the post; along with sharp perimeter shooting may be common keys to beating the zone.
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Zoning in: How to beat Syracuse’s zone
Syracuse may be defined by its 2-3 zone, but it’s not some mystical, magical defense for the ages. The Orange does lose – nine times this year. This is the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. Still, beating the zone is job one in beating Syracuse. Former Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton stresses several keys in zone-busting. "If you’re just going to pass the ball around the perimeter, you’re not going to do a very good job of attacking the zone,” Sutton said. "So it’s imperative that you, what we call, flatten the zone out, get the ball to the baseline and overload the zone. But it’s also imperative that you get the ball into the heart of the defense. Then, when you do get a shot, you have to attack the glass and try to get some second shots.” Similarly on the defensive end, controlling the boards can create fastbreak opportunities. "If you can get an outlet pass, you can get in transition before the defense has a chance to set up,” Sutton said. OU coach Jeff Capel has alluded to the possibility of moving power forward Blake Griffin around against the Orange, forcing them to react. "I would think coach Capel, he’s faced a lot of zones this year, he’s seen enough zones,” Sutton said. "I’m sure he’ll have a good game plan. But it’s never easy.” By John Helsley Zoning out: What makes the Syracuse zone work?
The Orange don’t just dabble in the 2-3 zone, it is, in many ways, who they are. So in Jim Boeheim’s 33 mostly successful seasons at the school, Syracuse has pretty much perfected the concept. "I think that’s one of their trademarks,” said former Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, who ran up against the Orange three times at OSU, winning twice. "They’ve always played that zone, and through the years they’ve got it pretty well defined and they pretty well know what teams are going to do to attack it.” The best Syracuse zones put three quick, long guards out on the perimeter, backed by two big bodies inside. This edition is no different. From there, the Orange create problems in many ways, frustrating teams that can’t be patient or penetrate the zone or that struggle hitting outside shots. "Syracuse’s zone has the ability to collapse into the lane, like an accordion, and they’re quick enough and athletic enough to get back out to the shooters,” ESPN analyst and former coach Steve Lavin said in a video breakdown. "Jim Boeheim, throughout his career, has had great success giving you different looks out of that 2-3 zone. They can trap out of it, they can extend it, they can collapse it. There’s a lot of flexibility.” By John Helsley