Jim Larranaga's recent comments on the Syracuse zone in the Syracuse paper were striking enough we wanted to really take a closer look. Here's what he said:
"They play a fantastic zone. And you can get hot and make threes against it some of the time...
"...You might be able to get something for a little while, like maybe threes from the wing. Or shots from the high post. But if you get it a couple times in a row, they take it away. And you've gotta find a different way to score.
"That's one of the things we were doing in the beginning of the game. We couldn't find a way. And then all of a sudden we found an offense that was working against it. And Tonye Jekiri made a lot of good decisions with the ball in his hands. He threw it inside for a layup or dunk. Kicked it outside for a three. Skipped it across the court for another shot. So then they took that away and made him shoot it.
"...[T]hey backed off of him and James (Kelly) at the high post. So then those guys have to score. So when James made a couple shots, they took him away.
"So what ends up happening, as a coach you can't orchestrate everything on every possession. The players have to figure it out. Figure out what they're giving you. Read the defense correctly and then react.
"And if you know what they're going to do, you have to be ready to go with the shot. We told our players: 'They trap on the baseline. You gotta shoot before they trap.' So Donnavan Kirk caught it and he got that shot off so fast, he made it and felt really good about it. They didn't give it to him again. He didn't get that shot a second time."
After watching that game pretty closely we can sort of see what he means. It starts as a 2-3 but then, sort of like Jerry Tarkanian's amoeba, it morphs. Guys will chase shooters then fall back in their spot. Lots of pressure on the corners, and it's hard to get in the lane much at all.
It's a very effective defense.
But here's what else we noticed, some of which Larranaga - Coach Tilde he's being called by some in the media - didn't really get into, and we don't mean to be unkind. But honestly?
Miami is awful. Not just bad in the normal bad sense and they can certainly manipulate a low-scoring game where there's a chance to win.
But in terms of individual skills? In terms of being able to catch the ball, to shoot it, to make smart basketball plays? At least in this game, the 'Canes couldn't do it.
It wasn't just The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight; all too often it was The Gang That Shot Itself In The Foot.
Miami spent an astounding amout of time in the first half just trying to catch and hold the ball. Often it was being flustered by the zone, which to an extent is understandable. Other times, though, the ball would be passed poorly or deflected or just dropped, and recovered.
This part is really amazing: as often as Miami bobbled or dropped the ball, particularly in the first half, the 'Canes only had five turnovers for the game.
And rebounds: if you go back and watch, Miami at times has trouble simply putting two hands on the ball to pull it down. The players could; they just didn't very often.
Miami was also constantly trying to catch up to someone who was penetrating. The 'Canes were out of position on a regular basis.
Larranaga has a collection of leftovers, castoffs and young players who are so uncertain or undeveloped that at the end of the first half, with five seconds left, two of them weren't sure who should bring the ball in. Syracuse wasn't even defending at this point, preferring to go downcourt.
Miami never even got it in.
So our question is this: with an opponent averaging just 61 ppg and just 53.4 ppg in conference, which made just nine of 46 attempts inside three point range, which had just five offensive rebounds and was outrebounded 39-24, and with said opponent having serious trouble simply holding on the ball far too often, how did this team take #2 Syracuse not once but twice to the brink of defeat?
Because Miami was down just 53-50 with 2:48 left and in the previous game, at Syracuse, with 2:18 left, it was a one-point game.
It's worth mentioning too that Syracuse's in-conference scoring margin is just 10.7 - behind Duke at 13 and Virginia at 15.5.
To break it down a bit further, the 'Cuse beat Miami by five, Virginia Tech by 20, UNC by 12, BC by 10, Pitt by five and Miami again by 12.
Take a weak Virginia Tech out and it falls to 8.8.
We're not saying that any of this means Syracuse can't win this weekend; of course the Orange can win. But we do agree with Al Featherston - this is a very good team, but not a juggernaut. And just as they might win Saturday, so might they lose. And as much (justified) attention as Syracuse's zone gets, people should start realizing that not only has Duke's defense improved radically, but so has Duke's rebounding. This is a very different team than it was only recently, so the previous conventional wisdom about the outcome may be really wrong.