Orange Watch: Syracuse basketball zone defense grows in legendary status each season

Jim Boeheim looks on during the first half of Syracuse's matchup. Mandatory Photo Credit: Rich Barnes, USA Today Sports.

Item: Following Sunday night’s 68-56 victory over Virginia Tech to begin the fifth season of ACC play for the Orange, Hokies fourth year coach Buzz Williams, who was a thorn in the side of SU at times when he coached at Marquette between 2008-14 (the ‘Cuse won four of seven games versus the Golden Eagles including a split of two NCAA Tournament meetings), lavished praise on the tall and rangy Syracuse lineup and shared a common refrain heard from many opposing coaches; it’s almost impossible to replicate in practice what transpires on the court in running an offense against the Orange 2-3 zone defense.

He’s been utilizing it for all of his 42 seasons, with visual evidence going back to Jim Boeheim’s first NCAA Tournament game, an upset victory over Tennessee in 1977. The 2-3 zone was prevalent then in shutting down to some extent the Volunteers vaunted “Ernie and Bernie Show” of future NBA standouts Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King, as the Orangemen displayed defensive tenacity in front of a national television audience (with the late, great Dick Enberg calling the action) and an eventual overtime victory in the tournament’s opening round.

In the 1996 NCAA West Regional final at Denver, then-Kansas coach Roy Williams and several of his Jayhawks players (four of the five KU starters played in the NBA) sat glum-faced in the post game media conference over their inability to shoot successfully (34% total) over the far reaching zone, finishing a dismal 4 of 25 (16%) beyond the arc in SU’s upset win to gain the school’s third Final Four berth.

» Related: In new year, Syracuse displays stifling defense against Virginia Tech

Even arguably the greatest single play in Syracuse basketball history, Hakim Warrick’s block of Michael Lee’s potential tying three point basket in the 2003 NCAA championship game victory came from Warrick sprinting out from down low in the zone to the left baseline to swat the ball into the row of photographers sitting courtside.

Fast forward to the most recent of Boeheim’s 1,375 games pacing the sideline, the dominating defensive performance against Virginia Tech Sunday in which the Hokies, averaging 91 points per game were held to 19 points in the first half, and finished some 20% lower shooting from the field (34%) than their season average (54%) coming into the game.

“That’s our defense, so we have to play it, so I hope they (Virginia Tech) have trouble against it,” Boeheim said Sunday evening. “Sometimes our zone is better against shooting teams than a man-to-man is, and tonight was a good example of that.”

But when asked why the zone is that much more effective against potent shooting teams, Boeheim was not in the mood to give up secrets.

“We don’t want to tell everybody that,” he explained. “It just is.”

But it was Williams who perhaps provided a clearer insight into Boeheim’s thought process following his 12th head-to-head meeting against the Hall of Famer. It all comes down to the numbers.

“Their zone is predicted on giving you tough looks,” Williams told the Roanoke Times during his postgame meeting with the media Sunday night. “Against a zone, 45 percent of teams’ shots come from 3 (point range). And so I think he’s a lot smarter maybe sometimes than he acts or says. But I think statistically he’s playing the odds on…’You’re going to miss more than you would if we were in man.’”

“It’ll be a tough defense for any team to crack,” Williams continued. “That’s part of the reason maybe why he plays zone exclusively, is the change of pace, and the prep time that it takes to prepare, and the uniqueness in comparison to the other 13 teams that you’ll play in the league.”

It also takes good players executing the coach’s instructions, and so far with only two losses in fourteen games, this year’s team, while short on depth, has been long on playing up to Boeheim’s specifications of his signature defense.

“They’re the tallest team in the country, longest team in the country,” Williams said Sunday. “Their length only accentuates the zone.”

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.