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Zones And Threes In The ACC

Zones are still around but not as effective as they used to be - least of all Syracuse’s.

Syracuse v Miami
CORAL GABLES, FLORIDA - JANUARY 05: Head coach Jim Boeheim of the Syracuse Orange reacts against the Miami Hurricanes during the second half at Watsco Center on January 05, 2022 in Coral Gables, Florida.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When the shot clock and 3-pointer became permanent parts of the game 36 seasons ago it was expected zone defenses would become obsolete.

They did, and they didn’t.

For one thing, used sparingly zones provide a defensive change of pace, a way to disrupt the comfortable rhythms of a well-functioning offense.

So, trailing Florida State in the late going last week and unable to stop dribble penetration by FSU, Duke turned to a zone defense and erased a 9-point deficit. “That gave us a little bit of rest and I thought it slowed down the momentum of the game,” Krzyzewski said of the tactical adjustment.

Sunk by a high-risk attempt to draw a charge by guard Jeremy Roach, which resulted in a blocking foul and the winning free throws for FSU, Duke mounted a rally that came within an eyelash of victory. (Roach’s miscue was the second overly aggressive defensive move by the sophomore guard in the final seconds of a narrow Duke defeat, after a late foul against a Miami driver.)

Resort to a zone proved a tonic for a Blue Devil squad similarly struggling to contain opposing guards in 2015.

The use of the maneuver by a coach notoriously averse to employing a zone – Krzyzewski once said his mother washed his mouth out with soap when he used the word – was news in 2015, and helped propel the Devils to the ’15 NCAA title.

These days Duke mixes in a zone periodically, as demonstrated in Tallahassee. Krzyzewski says his zone relies on man defensive principles, anyway.

Of course when it comes to employing a zone there’s no one quite as devout as Syracuse and coach Jim Boeheim. Recruiting long-armed athletes and deploying them in a 2-3 zone is an Orange staple.

A well-executed zone and its enforcement of lane impenetrability causes opponents to resort to the bonusphere more often than is characteristic or comfortable.

Four rivals set their season highs in 3-point attempts against the Orange so far in 2022, including Duke. That’s more long launches by rivals than against any other ACC team.

Last year Syracuse’s opponents attempted more 3-pointers than against anyone else. All but one squad facing Boeheim’s club tried at least 19 threes per game. The average opponent tried 27.2 threes.

This season, in Syracuse’s first 19 games only one rival attempted fewer than 20 threes. That was VCU, and it won in the Battle 4 Atlantis, forcing the second-most turnovers of the season by the Orange (16).

Contrast that with Duke and its man alignment, which saw 7 of its first 18 opponents shoot fewer than 20 defense-extending threes in ‘22.

Syracuse and its zone were last in the ACC halfway through the season in scoring defense (75.9) and 14th in rebounding defense (36.8) —not the greatest endorsement for its zone approach.

Overall Syracuse had the 10th-best scoring margin in the ACC at midseason. That helped to explain why it was no better than 9-10 overall and tied for tenth in the league — potentially the eighth straight season the Orange figure to finish in the bottom two-thirds of the conference.

With all due respect to Jim Boeheim, a Hall of Famer who’s served his alma mater well, you can’t help but wonder at what point his signature zone is seen less as a quaint anomaly than a lingering detriment, an assurance of middling results, an anachronistic cap on competitiveness.

Most 3-Pointers Tried In 2022 Game By ACC Teams
(Through Games of Jan. 22)
Team 3Att Opponent W/L
Boston College 28 Pittsburgh L
Clemson 32 Notre Dame L
Duke 37 Syacuse W
Florida State 30 Syracuse L
Georgia Tech 27 Notre Dame (OT) L
Louisville 36 Western Ky L
Miami 30 Syracuse W
North Carolina 29 Purdue L
NC State 35 Nebraska (4 OT) W
Notre Dame 31 High Point W
Western Michigan W
North Carolina W
Pittsburgh 27 Jacksonville W
Syracuse 34 Indiana (2 OT) W
Virginia 26 James Madison L
Virginia Tech 28 St. Bonaventue W
Wake Forest 37 Syracuse (OT) W