We hear often about an athlete being in the zone, a locked-in mental state where everything is in perfect harmony and the athlete is on a roll.
Well, the Syracuse University basketball team clearly has been in a zone of late – a 2-3 zone that has been more difficult for opponents to solve than a Rubik’s Cube; a 2-3 zone that has carried the Orange men to a fifth Final Four.
It’s funny, but a zone defense has long been looked upon with disdain. It’s been called a lazy man’s defense, something you play to compensate for inferior athletes who supposedly aren’t talented enough to play the more manly man-to-man.
But there is little lazy or unathletic about Jim Boeheim’s suffocating, discombobulating zone. If you don’t believe me, just ask the players and coaches from Montana, Cal, Indiana or Marquette – SU’s four vanquished NCAA Tournament opponents. Or check out the stat sheet. The numbers don’t lie. They are mind-boggling.
Those four teams averaged a paltry 45.7 points vs. Syracuse and shot just 29 percent from the field and 15 percent (14-for-92) from beyond the 3-point arc. During that span, the Orange men forced 67 turnovers and allowed just 61 field goals. They averaged 11 steals and six blocks.
They limited Indiana, the nation’s third-most prolific offense to a season-low 50 points in the Sweet Sixteen, then yielded just 39 points – an NCAA Elite Eight-record-tying low – against Marquette Saturday to punch their ticket to the Final Four for the first time since winning it all 10 years ago.
Defense isn’t sexy. Some regard it as exciting as watching paint dry or shoveling snow. But I disagree. This may not be Nolan Richardson’s forty minutes of hell, but it’s pretty close.
Boeheim’s defense clearly has evolved through the years and even during the course of this season. It is a much more aggressive, trapping, force-the-action attack than it used to be. Give Boeheim plenty of credit for understanding long before many other coaches the importance of length in addition to height. Measurements of wing spans can be as meaningful as head-to-toe measurements.
His players clearly have bought into the zone. And it’s been enjoyable watching the hustle and passion they’ve displayed in disrupting opposing offenses.
What’s interesting about this zone is that it’s been successful despite lacking an intimidating, Sultan of Swat-type center, ala Roosevelt Bouie or Etan Thomas. Kudos to Baye Moussa Keita for his spirited play anchoring the back line. He may be pencil thin and have hands of stone, but he squeezes every ounce of ability from his body, and his willingness to sacrifice has been contagious.
One of the keys to this zone has been the scrappiness of guards Michael Carter Williams and Brandon Triche, who, at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-4, respectively, have the kind of height that wreaks havoc with opposing guards. And I’ve been especially impressed with the defensive effort of late of James Southerland, who is a shooter first, but who has shown a willingness to play “D” and grab key rebounds. The other forward, C.J. Fair, has always been solid back there, making blocks, altering shots and hauling in rebounds.
Zones, like offensive lines in football, have to work in synch. One link breaks down and the whole chain breaks. But this Syracuse team has played the zone to perfection lately. And even when someone does blow an assignment, there often is a teammate there to pick them up.
They are showing that defense can be fun to watch. And we already know that defense wins championships. Perhaps these Orange men are in a zone similar to the one that catapulted the program to its first NCAA title a decade ago.