- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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BOSTON – Somewhere, some clever Syracuse fan ought to grab a red cape, a magic marker, ink a Z on his chest and call himself The Zone.
In this NCAA tournament, the Zone (yes, it deserves to be capitalized) has grown to near-mythological proportions and taken on the aura and presence of a superhero, complete with superpowers.
How do you beat the Zone? Why do you play it? How unique is it? What makes it so hard?
It is everywhere, an all-consuming beast. In the two press conferences between Syracuse and Ohio State, on the eve of their Elite Eight match, the word zone was mentioned 50 times.
Heck, if the Orange win the national title, the Zone could earn Most Outstanding Player honors.
Here’s the dirty little secret: The Zone does not have superpowers, nor is Orange coach Jim Boeheim some evil scientist who has concocted something no one in basketball can duplicate.
The Syracuse coach is just committed (or stubborn, pick your word). He does not waver if teams are shooting well against the Zone (as Wisconsin did) and he does not give his players the option of man-to-man defense.
“They buy into it because they want to play,’’ Boeheim laughed. "These guys know what we want to do, what we’re about. They work hard at it.’’
Boeheim, in fact, is tickled at people’s preoccupation with his defense, as if he’s unearthed some sort of relic from the peach-basket days.
“It’s always funny to me,’’ he said. “You never hear anybody yelling at Mike Krzyzewski to go back and play zone. Why is that? He’s such a good coach, you don’t question him? Is that what it is? Really? Somebody shook their head down there. OK, that means I’m not a good coach, so you can question me.’’
Thad Matta would beg to differ. The Ohio State coach will be the next to attempt to slay the Zone, on Saturday night, and while he knows conventional wisdom holds the easiest way to beat a good zone is to shoot 3s, he also watched Wisconsin drain 14 and lose.
“A couple of years ago I heard what I thought was the greatest answer from Coach Boeheim,’’ Matta said. “Somebody asked him, 'What do you do when somebody gets really hot against your zone and they’re making 3s?' He said, ‘How do you know they’re not going to make them against man-to-man?’ He has his philosophy and he’s only won 900 or however many games he’s won. It works for him.’’
Whom to watch
William Buford, Ohio State: Matta went out of his way to commend his senior for his defensive effort against Cincinnati. And it was deserved. It also was welcome deflection from Buford’s offensive woes.
The Sweet 16 has not been kind to Buford. He has played in that round three consecutive seasons and is 8-of-37, including an absentee 1-of-8 against the Bearcats on Thursday.
This season, however, is Buford's first appearance in the Elite Eight. Ohio State needs him to run with the clean start.
Wisconsin offered a nice little road map for their Big Ten brethren in terms of beating the Syracuse zone– hit 3s. Now, expecting Ohio State to be as red-hot as the Badgers is probably silly, but the Buckeyes do have shooters.
Which is where Buford comes in. He’s one of those shooters and he needs to make those 3s.
“The great thing about William is he usually bounces back,’’ Matta said. “Hopefully the odds say tomorrow some higher percentage will be going in for him. But yeah, we need Will to play well.’’
Scoop Jardine, Syracuse: One of Syracuse’s hidden strengths this season is its ability to take care of the basketball. The Orange are eighth in the country, committing just 10.5 turnovers per game.
That number will meet its match in the form of Aaron Craft. Arguably the best on-the-ball defender in the country, Ohio State's sophomore guard is a relentless gnat who not only swats at the ball but also frustrates his opponent into mistakes.
Jardine, typically the primary ball handler for Syracuse, had been very good until Thursday’s regional semifinal against Wisconsin when the senior coughed up the ball five times.
That can’t happen against Craft. Ohio State will turn those miscues into points – the Buckeyes got 20 points off turnovers against Cincinnati – but more crucially, OSU is quite content in a grind-it-out, half-court game. If Jardine turns it over, that means more chances for Ohio State to dictate the tempo.
What to watch
This could be the first time that Syracuse feels sorely the absence of Fab Melo. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita have done a more than admirable job for the Orange through this NCAA tournament run, but in their first three games, the duo has not faced anything quite like Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas.
The two are big, strong and armed with an arsenal of scoring touches. Most crucially for Christmas and Keita, Sullinger and Thomas help Ohio State rack up a plus-7.6 rebounding edge, good for sixth in the country — and good for lots of extended possessions. Christmas and Keita will have their work cut out for them in this game.
“James [Southerland] and C.J. [Fair] are going to have to help us,’’ Orange forward Kris Joseph said of defending the Ohio State big men. “It’s going to be the weakside man on the back of the zone that’s going to be able to help the most when [they] get the ball down low. If Rakeem does a good enough job, we won’t need to, but it’s going to be our job definitely to give him a lot of help.’’