The Syracuse zone is in the zone

I have a new rule effective immediately- stop questioning The Zone.

This rule goes against everything I believe when it comes to basketball. I believe that a team must adapt and change to meet its opponent and take advantage of its weaknesses. Basketball, like life, is an evolution and you must adapt or die.

All season long I watched Coach Jim Boeheim incredulously dismiss reporters who questioned his decision to stick with The Zone as the losses started piling up. I debated with Syracuse Alumni, both young and old, and every one of us agreed; The Zone was not the answer. “Play man!” was the collective cry from those whom I consider to be solid basketball minds. The consensus was that it was time for a change.

marquette5

Syracuse’s zone claimed another victim on Saturday

Well, that’s why Boeheim makes millions coaching a Final Four team and I’m sitting here writing this column.

» Related: Scouting the Michigan Wolverines

After the Orange handled Indiana in stunning fashion, allowing the Hoosiers to only score a season-low 50 points in the Sweet Sixteen, I watched Boeheim deliver this answer in the post-game press conference:

Q. Have you ever questioned or doubted the 2-3 and what is it about it that you’re in love with it?

COACH BOEHEIM: The short history of our zone is we started out as a man-to-man team with some zone and over the years our zone got better, but we still played “man.” The problem when you play man, you have to spend an hour on your man defense every day and when you play your preseason games your nonconference games, if you’re playing man your zone isn’t getting better. So finally it dawned on me after about 27 or 28 years, finally – takes me a while — that if we played zone all the time and didn’t waste time playing man-to-man and put some wrinkles in the zone because we had more time to practice it, that our defense would be better. So starting a few years ago we started to do that, and — because up until a few years ago we played a lot of games man-to-man but that’s wasted defensive time for us and now we spend much more time on it, our zone is better, and you don’t have that decision that people are always saying to me, well, why don’t you switch to your man-to-man, well you can’t switch to something you don’t have. They stopped asking that question.

When a man-to-man coach is getting beat, he tells his team to play defense better, he doesn’t switch to a zone. When we get beat in our zone for whatever reason it is, we try to change it or play it better. As the years have evolved, not many teams are playing zone and when they play on or practice against it, it’s a false sense of security, because you’re not playing against our defense, and it’s much like when Georgetown had Patrick Ewing, you could practice against their 2-3, 1-3-1, anything you wanted but at the end of the day when you made your play and made your move and you went to shoot it, he blocked it. You get a false sense of security sometimes at practice.

After listening to this explanation, I admit, I found myself thinking that Boeheim made some great points. And then, just as quick, I dismissed this explanation. Sure they held Indiana, a team who hasn’t seen the Syracuse 2-3 zone to 50 points, but I was positive that Marquette, who knew The Zone well and had scored 74 points on it a month earlier, would put up a much tougher fight.

Then Saturday happened. 39 points on 22.6% shooting for the Golden Eagles as the Orange punched its ticket to the Final Four.

Now the answer that I posted above from the ZoneMaster himself is my zone gospel. It enlightened me to a point I never dreamed I’d reach. I am now a 100% believer in The Zone.

Well maybe not 100%. But it made me realize Boeheim had some method to his madness and wasn’t just too stubborn to admit he was wrong and switch to man. He has put his entire coaching weight behind The Zone, and with the right players playing it every single day of their collegiate careers, he has now proven it can propel an otherwise good team onto greatness.

» Related: Syracuse earns trip to Atlanta with win over Marquette

Of course, I don’t think it will always work out this way. We have 10 years between Final Four appearances to prove it, but how else can you explain what has happened here, with an offensively mediocre Syracuse team making the Final Four while crushing two very good opponents. Practice makes perfect, and after practicing it all season, The Zone was the perfect weapon against Indiana and Marquette.

Michigan has the tools to beat it with fantastic guard play and outside shooting. But then again, so did Marquette and Indiana.

When The Zone is locked in, like it is now, it is a suffocating, impenetrable, life force, capable of stifling even the most potent offenses. It took a full season and a bunch of frustrating losses to get to this point but that is where the Syracuse defense stands now as we head into the Final Four.

The stats tell the story, sure, but the eye test blew my mind. The Orange just looked so good and so sharp defensively. Even as the offense sputtered at times, watching the games gave the feeling that the players knew The Zone would take them to the finish line. There was no panic when the large leads dwindled. The players practiced what Boeheim preached, and the results speak volumes.

No matter what happens on Saturday, I have a new respect for the Jim Boeheim 2-3 zone and I at least understand why it’s the only defense Boeheim will play. If it shuts down Michigan and propels the Orange to the ultimate test against Louisville (just a hunch) in the NCAA Championship game, it will have only happened because Boeheim refused to switch it up.

This run has proven that Boeheim doesn’t need to adapt. His system works. It won’t work every season, but with the right squad The Zone rounds into its glorious offense-destroying form. And when it happens, the sky, or in this case an NCAA Title, is the limit.

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Matt Goodman

About Matt Goodman

Matt worked for the Westchester Journal News, covering a variety of sports. He has also covered Syracuse University basketball from 2003-05 in both online and print. Matt graduated from Syracuse University in 2004 and currently resides in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @mattgoodman44.
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