Length and speed give Cuse edge
Opponents have been stifled by Syracuse's 2-3 zone in NCAA tournament
When he wasn't stalking officials or yanking loose his tie, John Chaney screeched at his Temple basketball players the same two words over and over again: "The middle, the middle, the middle," he'd yell.
The middle, to Chaney's way of thinking, is both the soft spot and the sweet spot in any good zone. It's where, if done correctly, an offense can pick apart the defense or where, when played well, the defense can make an opponent's life miserable.
Chaney should know. During his Hall of Fame career, Temple's matchup zone became almost synonymous with the Owls' coach, so effective it was almost mystical by the time he retired.
So the man knows a good zone defense when he sees one.
And how does Chaney describe the zone Syracuse is packing for its trip to the Final Four this weekend? "Devastating."
"If you saw the passes being entered in some of these games [against Syracuse], they're trying to make chest passes over the front line and they're skipping the head of the guy in the middle and it goes right to the guys on the back line," Chaney said. "The only thing that works is a bounce pass but then you have those long arms to deal with. That's why theirs is just a little more devastating than ours was."
The numbers back up Chaney's description. Through four NCAA tournament games, the Orange have given up only 183 points, the fewest through Elite Eight games since the tournament expanded in 1985. Opponents are shooting just 28.9 percent from the floor, an anemic 15.2 from the arc and have come away scoreless on 159 of 251 possessions.
Easily Syracuse's most valuable player in this tournament, you almost expect the Orange to take the press conference dais with placards that read BOEHEIM, TRICHE, SOUTHERLAND, ZONE.
The question is why is everyone so surprised by it? It's not like Jim Boeheim throws out a bunch of junk defenses and catches people off guard. The coach said he figures he's been playing at least some zone since he came to Syracuse in 1976, going exclusively with the defense in 2003 and thoroughly all-in as of 2010.
It's not hidden away in some vaulted room; it's right there on game film for opposing coaches to see.
Yet there was Indiana, flummoxed into submission in the Sweet 16, and worse, Big East foe Marquette -- which sees the Orange almost annually -- falling apart in the Elite Eight. "It's not the way it works," Boeheim said, "it's the way these guys play it. You can't simulate that. It's like Louisville's pressure. You can't simulate that. You can practice it all you want, but it's not the same. And we're obviously playing it at a really high, almost freaky level."
What makes it freaky isn't that complicated, even if opponents would beg to differ.
It starts and finishes with the players, with a bit of Boeheim in between. The word you'll hear over and over again is length -- and with 6-foot-6 Michael Carter-Williams and the 6-foot-4 Brandon Triche at the top that's a fair statement. "Their width, it's like those guards stretch from one sideline to the next," Chaney said.
What people don't talk about is the quickness, the speed that allows the Orange to recover and to close a gap that for a split second looks open.
Mike Hopkins, who has been Boeheim's right-hand man for 15 years, recruits players who are both long and quick. He agrees that most everyone tends to talk about the length but it's the players' speed, Hopkins said, that is deceptively critical. "It's like when Miami started putting safeties as linebackers and defensive ends," he said. "It just looks like speed so it's like, 'Oh, that's open. Uh-oh, no it's not."
This year the zone's effectiveness is even stronger because the players know it so well. Triche has started every game of his four-year career, Southerland is a senior, C.J. Fair is a junior and Carter-Williams and Rakeem Christmas are both sophomores.
The only freshman Boeheim really relies on is Jerami Grant and he, according to Hopkins, is almost like a zone savant. "We're playing Indiana and we go high-low," Hopkins said. "Will Sheehey has a layup and Jerami, from the other side, literally jumps through the rim to block the shot. That's what it's really about -- reads, reactions and rotations, and when they come together, it all seems so much faster."
The real secret of the zone's success, of course, is the architect. Boeheim recruits it and teaches it but what Hopkins said he doesn't get credit for is that he tweaks it.
Even after all these years he finds ways to subtly change things to offer a counterpunch to an opponent. "You learn how teams are designed to attack it," Hopkins said. "And then you find the vaccine. Marquette is trying to duck in the center, so you know what Coach did? He played the center higher. People don't realize how much he's always changing it."
Some things, however, don't change too much. "The key," Chaney said, "is to stop the middle and Jim Boeheim's zone does that. You stop the ball from getting in the middle and you find a team that dribbles around, passes around, stands around and shoots around. And that team is never going to win games against the zone."
Certainly no one who's lined up across from Syracuse in this NCAA tournament is going to argue.
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