Mixed Juice: Should Syracuse play more man-to-man defense instead of zone?

Former NBA star and basketball analyst Reggie Miller said that Syracuse should’ve played more man defense in the NCAA tournament, especially in SU’s second round game against UNC Asheville. The Orange has rarely played man-to-man defense under head coach Jim Boeheim.

Should Syracuse have mixed in some different defensive schemes in the NCAA tournament? Should SU try playing more man defense in the future? The Juice Online’s Matt Goodman and Ben Glidden explore. Do you feel strongly one way or the other? Share your thoughts below!

goodmanMatt Goodman
Syracuse should’ve adjusted to man defense in the tournament.

Boeheim is a Syracuse institution. And like most institutions, he has fallen victim to an unwillingness to adapt.

Look no further than this year’s tournament. The referees certainly hindered the cause against Ohio State, but the dirty little secret is that the Orange barely survived to play in the Elite Eight.

The referees handed the Orange a 72-65 victory in the first round against UNC-Ashville, narrowly avoiding the embarrassment of being the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 seed. Why did this happen? Glad you asked.

UNC-Ashville’s tallest player in the starting line-up was six-foot-five. Naturally, playing the zone with our length would cause all types of problems for a team with little size, right?

Well, if all five players on the floor can shoot (they could) and have the patience to move the ball to find the opening spot in the zone (they did), the result is a too close for comfort nail-biter that ended up making the referees as big of heroes as James Southerland and his 15 points. Why didn’t Boeheim utilize the size and athleticism at his disposal to pressure the ball, play a little man, and run UNC-Ashville out of the gym?

After the Orange escaped, Boeheim responded to Reggie Miller’s comments regarding the choice of defense by saying, “Tell Reggie we don’t play man.” But Miller was right. Syracuse should’ve switched to man.

Fast-forward to the Sweet 16.

Wisconsin lit up the 2-3 zone so much that a switch was warranted. The Badgers finished 14 of 27 from 3-point range, but couldn’t make one over the final six minutes, after a stretch in the second half when they made six straight in as many possessions.

“I think we naturally tried to move out,” Boeheim said, referring to the 2-3 zone. “But you’ve got to get them off their spots. We didn’t do that for a stretch out there. But they have terrific ball movement, and they have five guys that can shoot. There aren’t that many teams like that.”

Boeheim acknowledged that Wisconsin has five players who can hit deep shots (the weakness of the 2-3 zone) recognized it wasn’t working, and then chastised Reggie Miller for suggesting something almost every other basketball team in the world does when an opponent is succeeding against your defensive scheme!

Wisconsin, which averaged 7.7 3-pointers per game and has a season high of 15, hit its last 3 with 7:03 to play when Taylor gave the Badgers their final lead of the game, 59-56. The zone didn’t start magically working. Wisconsin just started missing. It was pure luck for the Orange that they even made it to play Ohio State.

I’m not saying the 2-3 zone doesn’t have its merits. When played well, and against the right opponent, it’s a beautiful defensive game plan. But game plans need to be adjusted. Boeheim didn’t adjust.

This year’s Orange team was athletic and long. At every position Boeheim would have had a defensive advantage had he gone man-to-man. He refused to deviate from “his” status quo, and it finally caught up to him against Ohio State.

» Agree or disagree with Matt? Leave your comments below.
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» Brad Bierman: Bashing Jim Boeheim is old school

chandlerBenjamin Glidden
Zone defense is what got them there.

Every year, around the time Syracuse gets eliminated from post-season play, a group of Jim Boeheim critics start to crawl out of the woodwork.

The main argument is usually consistent: The reason the Syracuse basketball team loses every year is because Boeheim is unwilling to switch from his 2-3 zone.

I couldn’t disagree more with that statement. Boeheim should be able to coach at Syracuse University for as long as he wants. He has brought it success in many different ways.

Boeheim has won 890 games in his 36-year career. He has won 20 or more games in all but 2 of those 36 seasons. Coach Boeheim has never had a losing record as the head coach, not even Coach Krzyzewski can say that. The one blemish on his record is that he has only won the NCAA Tournament once in his career.

Lets remember that some great coaches have never won an NCAA title at all, but have still led very successful careers. Lou Carnesecca and Lou Henson were great coaches who never won a title. Eddie Sutton couldn’t even seal the deal after winning 800+ games and going to the Final Four 3 different times.

It’s no secret that great 3-point shooting teams do well against the 2-3 zone. With good ball movement, it allows for open shots from deep. But the zone also baits teams into shooting more shots from 3-point range than they usually would, which results in sub-par field goal percentages.

Syracuse has done well extending the zone to take away 3-point shots. The problem is that it opens up the foul line area and teams have taken advantage of that. It wasn’t a problem when Fab Melo was inside, solidifying the middle, but it became a slight problem upon his departure.

We all knew that Wisconsin would shoot well from deep, they’ve been doing it all season. Even UNC-Asheville hit from beyond the arc in the Orange’s first game of the tournament. Syracuse stuck with the 2-3 zone and won both of those games. So what’s the problem?

Against Ohio State, you can’t tell me the reason the Orange lost was because of the zone. Syracuse lost because of a combination of missed shots and an inability to stop Jared Sullinger inside.  So if Boeheim would have made the switch to man-to-man defense, his players could have stopped Sullinger? No, the team just didn’t have anyone who could match up with him; the style of defense had nothing to do with it.

Boeheim is a great recruiter and the past few years have been a testament to that. What makes him so great is that he recruits players that fit well in his system. Long athletic guys like James Southerland, CJ Fair and Michael Carter-Williams are future staples in the Boeheim defense.  If he recruits players for a specific system, then switches to another one, what’s the point? He recruits for the zone and the zone is what the Orange should play.

People try to find excuses for the lack of post-season success. Maybe standards have just been set too high. It’s hard for me to be upset with an Elite 8 run without the team’s starting center. It seems to me that people are trying to make excuses for the fact that teams don’t win a championship every year. They blame the only thing that has stayed constant in this program during the last 40 years, Jim Boeheim.

» Who do you agree with more? Leave your opinions below.
» More SU basketball: Listen to The Juice on The Cuse podcast on Nerlens Noel

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