We've been trying to watch Syracuse a lot this week to get a better grip on Jim Boeheim's zone. And first of all, 2-3 is a misnomer. Bill Foster ran a 2-3 for Duke in the late 70's. Syracuse starts out in a 2-3 formation (usually) but the defense flexes depending on the offense.
If you wanted to give it a name, you could probably do worse than The Swarm, because that's what it does. If the ball goes in the corners, 2-3 guys swarm and the entire defense rotates over. If it goes into the lane, it's very difficult to pass out because 3-4 guys converge.
Another unique thing about Boeheim's zone is that zones are typically used to hide a lack of athleticism, but Syracuse doesn't lack athleticism.
And while it's very easy to say that the guys on the court should do this that or the other, the guys on the court are the only ones who have a raft of sleek, agile defenders running at them.
Still, though, there are some things about Syracuse which seem pretty obvious and some obvious ways to attack them and some weaknesses which can be exploited.
First, the traditional stuff: it's hard to attack a zone, particularly a morphing zone, without seriously fast ball movement. There's no zone in the world that can move as fast as a passed basketball. Even if you just move it around the perimeter, if you do it really fast you sort of force Syracuse back into a more traditional 2-3 which allows more three point shots.
And three point shooting would help. In ACC play, since the UNC game, Syracuse has only outshot UNC from three point range, and UNC is pretty bad from Bonusville.
In fact, Trevor Cooney has taken close to 50% of Syracuse's threes. That's not that different from UNC, where Marcus Paige has in fact taken more than 50% of UNC's three point attempts (52.1%).
Michael Gbinije has taken 20 and hit nine (45%); Tyler Ennis has hit 18 of 45 (40%). But CJ Fair is hitting 28% and the other guys just aren't taking that many.
So one way to attack the zone is to attack the offense. And here's why:
In the ACC games since UNC, Syracuse has been strikingly consistent. Check this out:
- vs. UNC: 21 baskets, 4 three pointers.
- vs. BC: 24 baskets, 4 three pointers
- vs. Pitt: 21 baskets, 4 three pointers
- vs. Miami: 21 baskets, 5 three pointers
Pretty cool, huh?
A bit deeper:
- Cooney vs. UNC: 2-12 from three point range
- Cooney vs. BC: 2-5 from three point range
- Cooney vs. Pitt: 2-8 from three point range
- Cooney vs. Miami 3-6 from three point range
- Cooney vs. Wake Forest: 2-9 from three point range
You also have to keep an eye on point guard Tyler Ennis. In ACC play he hasn't shot it that well, but against Cornell he was 7-8 and he hit 5-9 against Indiana and 5-8 against Villanova.
But Cooney's the guy who guns for it.
Syracuse has also outrebounded everyone except for Pitt. Just as an aside, Duke did okay against Pitt on the boards (37-32 and 11-10 offensive).
As we said, Syracuse is really good at swarming the ball once it comes into the middle. When Miami and UNC played, neither team could do anything in the lane: Syracuse would regularly strip the ball or knock it loose. We were amazed at how often the ball was knocked free and picked up by Miami or UNC. The turnovers (UNC had 14; Miami, remarkably, had just five but could have had a bunch more).
And while the Heels and 'Canes did pick up the loose balls quite a bit, it was nonetheless disruptive.
Duke will want to get into the lane but once the ball goes in the guy who catches it cannot stand still. Like everywhere else, you have to move it quickly.
We thought that when the zone collapsed up, away from the basket, that Syracuse took a big chance with open shots underneath. But taking UNC for example, no one likely to be in the lane could pass the ball really well other than Kennedy Meeks, who is still a rookie. And no one is that comfortable shooting from there. Think about it: Jo-El (Kryptonite pronunciation please!) James? Brice Johnson? Isaiah Hicks? Please.
Maybe James Michael McAdoo, but even he, despite his many gifts, is not a gifted passer (career stats: 83 assists to 155 turnovers).
One hopes that Jabari Parker, Amile Jefferson and Rodney Hood can do better.
We also noticed that both Miami but especially UNC allowed Syracuse to pack a particular part of the court: when the ball went into the corners, Syracuse sent all five players - and for some reason, so did UNC.
No one stepped back away from the scrum. No one rotated to the basket. It was kind of bizarre, really.
The zone has another quality too: it allows the defense to, in relative terms, rest. You can to an exent negate this advantage by forcing the opponent to expend energy on offense, but obviously you will burn yours as well. Since Duke is committed to the man-to-man, though, it won't be a big change.
Finally, as important as we think it is to cut off the three point shot from Cooney - it would have made the difference in the first Miami game, the Pitt game, and possibly BC, Wake Forest and the second Miami game, all of which were close late - the key to Syracuse is Ennis.
In both cases, fortunately, Duke has multiple options. Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones are all solid defenders.
Duke also matches up reasonably well with CJ Fair, Jerami Grant and Rakeem Christmas. All three are excellent athletes and tremendous basketball players, but Grant is 6-8 and 210, Fair is 6-8 and 215, while Christmas is 6-9 and 250. The front lines are roughly comparable physically.
As we said, there's a big difference between seeing something and doing it, even if you're on the floor. But we don't think that there is a huge gap between these teams.
One final thought: at Arizona, Lute Olson used to run a zone which featured Kenny Lofton doing nothing but running from baseline to baseline to trap. It was amazing and fun to watch.
We're wondering if that can't be done offensively - say by Andre Dawkins, who by so doing would force Syracuse to essentially run a box and one whether they wanted to or not.
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