ACC teams have finessed Syracuse basketball’s 2-3 zone

Why has Syracuse been struggling recently?

Well, that didn’t take long.

25-0 now seems like a distant memory, perhaps even a dream. The nightmare of a five game skid (I’m including the Maryland victory because it was still ugly), heading into the last game of the regular season, has Syracuse fans everywhere wondering, how did it happen? What went wrong?

Why has Syracuse been struggling recently?

How soon we all forget that the Orange was never playing like a team that deserved to be undefeated. They continued to find ways to win of course, but as I, and many other writers, had discussed, the Orange didn’t have the offensive numbers and output of a top tier team. However the defensive production, and a knack for the dramatic by a certain freshman point guard, continued to lead the way to victory after victory.

So when Boston College dealt Syracuse its first loss, there wasn’t a lot of surprise or panic. The second loss in a row at Duke, in the Cameron Crazy environment seeking revenge, was somewhat expected. But three more terrible performances since then have raised a lot of questions about Syracuse’s offensive ineptitude.

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Believe it or not, I’m more concerned about the other end of the court. Part of the offense’s incompetence comes from a lack of defensive success. Yes, teams are still not scoring a ton on the Orange, but that is mostly by design.

The ACC coaches have figured out that in order to beat Syracuse you need to slow down the tempo, force the Orange to play defense for 20 seconds per possession or more, and then get the ball into the soft spots of the zone, most notably the foul line area.

The key, especially for teams like Virginia and Georgia Tech in the last two games, was to do this without turning the ball over (only 15 combined in the two games) and knocking down the open shots (48.6%).

Easier said than done, right? Well, as we’ve seen, there are spots of the zone that are prone to exploitation. With good guard play and skilled players on the baseline and foul line, it’s not as tall of a task as it may seem. You need patience and good offensive schemes to put these players in the right spots.

So what happens after guarding these schemes for 30 seconds every possession? Once they expend so much energy on defense only to see the ball go through the hoop, or have to fight for a rebound, the Orange’s offensive attack is drastically slowed down.

Sure pretty much everyone with an Orange jersey has been shooting the ball poorly, but that’s a direct result of teams finessing the zone.

This is certainly a generalization, but the ACC as a whole has more skilled, finesse players than the Big East did. As such, with the coaches watching enough scouting tape, teams have been able to adapt and succeed.

By beating the zone, ACC opponents have neutralized Syracuse’s offense. Coach Jim Boeheim teams by nature are much better in transition because he recruits athletes to fit the zone. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in a half court set, there are limited options to get good shots. Length and athleticism are valued over offensive skill sets.

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For most of the season, this was irrelevant because the transition opportunities were there to allow players to get going.

So much of basketball is mental, and the momentum from getting an easy bucket on a break, off of a turnover, has been absent over this brutal stretch. The offense from defense model that Syracuse Orange basketball is founded on has been negated by teams beating the zone.

The good news is that come tournament time, Syracuse will be rested and bound to find one or two opponents that are overwhelmed by the swarming 2-3 defense. The bad news is that better teams, finesse teams, like ACC opponents won’t be overwhelmed.

Will C.J. Fair, Trevor Cooney, Tyler Ennis and company step up and produce in the half court when that happens? This recent stretch does not give much hope, but thankfully it’s March Madness and anything can happen.

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About Matt Goodman 76 Articles
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.