NCAA BK

Syracuse playing suffocating zone

Jon Crispin on Syracuse's Elite Eight win over Marquette.
Jon Crispin on Syracuse's Elite Eight win over Marquette.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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WASHINGTON

Any discussion about Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse team, whether it’s big-picture talk of his 37-year Hall of Fame career or the more immediate talk about Syracuse’s improbable run to this year’s Final Four, must begin with talk of his 2-3 zone defense.

Is there any other basketball coach who is more identified with a system than Boeheim is with the zone? Rick Pitino has his deflection-oriented pressure defense, John Thompson III has his Princeton offense, Bob Knight had his motion offense, but every Boeheim team is marked by its adherence to — and success with — the 2-3 zone.

And so, after Boeheim’s team held Marquette to a measly 39 points on Saturday in a 55-39 win to clinch the coach’s fourth trip to the Final Four, most of the initial questions for Marquette’s players and coach focused on how daggone hard it is to play against the Syracuse zone.

How much better was the Syracuse zone on Saturday compared with when you scored 74 points against the Orange a month ago? What’s it like to play against a defense where three sets of long arms always seem to clog the lane? What makes this year’s Syracuse defense so special compared with past years?

“The institution and the program that he has created is comparable to any in the country,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “They were fabulous. The answer is never, ‘We didn’t play our game,’ ‘We didn’t make shots,’ or some other ill-advised excuse when you get beat. They beat us from start to finish. We collectively tried everything we knew to try.”

As has been the case since Syracuse started its postseason, nothing worked for Marquette.

People treat the Syracuse zone as if it’s some type of novelty. It is, but only in how much Boeheim relies on it. He exclusively recruits the type of long, lean players who fit his system. Then he teaches his system. And on nights such as Saturday, the system works perfectly.

You could look at Marquette’s plodding performance and boil it down to something simple: Hey, the Golden Eagles just didn’t make their shots.

Vander Blue, Marquette’s dynamic scorer, was held to 14 points on 3-of-15 shooting. Marquette’s bulky big man, Davante Gardner, had an efficient game in the high post, notching 14 points, but was denied paint touches all night and took only nine shots. Marquette shot 23 percent on the game, including an embarrassing 3-of-25 from three.

It’s all true. It’s also far too simple.

This was Syracuse doing what Syracuse always does, and doing it at a higher level than perhaps ever before. The 39 points were eight fewer than Marquette’s worst offensive performance of the season. Syracuse is third in the nation in 3-point defense, holding opponents to 28.7 percent, but has stepped it up since the tournament began, keeping its four opponents to a measly 15 percent from 3-point range.

The Orange are among the top teams in the nation in steal percentage, block percentage and effective field-goal percentage, according to KenPom.com. Syracuse also is the second-tallest team in the country, an important ingredient to the zone defense’s success.

It’s not that teams just happen to have their worst shooting nights whenever they play Syracuse. It’s that Syracuse’s tenacious zone pesters them into making mistakes and missing shots.

“It’s one of our best, I think, no question,” Boeheim said of his team’s zone. “Our teams are good defensively every year, but this year’s team statistically has played as well as any defensive team we’ve had.”

Wait — really? In 37 years? Better than teams that had Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly, Billy Owens, Pearl Washington? Better than the Carmelo Anthony team that won Boeheim his only national title?

It’s stunning to think, and scary for anyone who draws Syracuse in the Final Four. It also just might be true. A team that got blown out by Georgetown in this same building three weeks ago showed on Saturday that it has put things together since then. It was far from a dominant performance on offense, but the Orange choked, throttled, squeezed and denied Marquette all game long on defense. That 2-3 zone forced 13 turnovers, had nine steals and blocked eight shots.

If it continues next weekend in Atlanta, we’ll be talking about how Syracuse’s 2-3 zone did something even more impressive: Bring Jim Boeheim his second national title.

“This team has just really come together and has played great basketball,” Boeheim said. “This was a tough region. ... Right now, it’s a great reason to be happy, but if you don’t win the Final Four, you will be more unhappy than you would be if you lose. That’s the way I look at it. If I know I’m going to lose, I would rather lose now and get it over with and I can go to Disney World tomorrow morning.”

The feeling you got on Saturday, though, was that Boeheim’s vacation will have to be postponed until April 9. That’s the morning after the national title game.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com

Tagged: Marquette, Syracuse

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