Zoning in on why 2-3 defense works for Syracuse

Syracuse guard Brandon Triche, left, and Syracuse forward

Syracuse guard Brandon Triche, left, and Syracuse forward Rakeem Christmas, right tie up Indiana forward Cody Zeller in the first half of an NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinal at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.. (March 28, 2013) (Credit: MCT)

WASHINGTON - There is only one surprise involving the old reliable 2-3 zone defense that Syracuse uses just about all the time. Opponents know they are going to face it, which usually does not help. The surprise is that more teams don't try to use it.

"It's hard," said Michael Carter-Williams, the sophomore guard who had a career-high 24 points for the Orange as it totally discombobulated Indiana with its zone in a 61-50 Sweet 16 win Thursday night. "People think it's a lazy defense, but it has a lot of principles to it. It's tough to play, and I think some teams go to it when they give up penetration, but to start in a zone and keep going with it, it's very tough."

It is not a comfort zone for teams that must face it, as Marquette will do Saturday in an All-Big East NCAA Tournament Elite Eight game. It is not all that easy for the team learning and executing it, either. And that is why more teams do not use it (and why Indiana seemed so unprepared, because the 2-3 seemed so foreign).

"You have to commit to it and most coaches have played man-to-man. That's what they commit to, that's what they do,'' said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has become college basketball's zone-master. "That would be a major, major philosophical position . . . You can't practice enough on both.

"The only team that's ever been good at both was [Georgetown under] John Thompson Sr., or 'Big John,' whatever, because he practiced five hours a day on defense," Boeheim said, adding that several Big East teams, including Marquette, have started going zone occasionally. "Beat us a couple of games this year."

Still, there is something unnatural about guarding territory instead of a player. In pickup games or in AAU games, for instance, no one goes into a zone. "First off, they don't play defense on the playground or AAU," Boeheim said, deadpan.

Marquette forward Trent Lockett said his team started playing zone this season because of how effective opponents were when they tried it against Marquette. "People sometimes think you just stand there the whole game," he said. "But to be successful playing a zone, you have to be active and you have to have energy. One of the big things is you have to rebound out of a zone, and Syracuse does a good job of that."

Syracuse's 2-3 is successful because the team works hard at it and has tall, rangy players on both the front and back lines. "I feel other teams don't have the length we have,'' forward James Southerland said. "It's got us really far, and it never failed us.''

Boeheim admits that it takes some selling to his players, but not that much.

"They know it's a weapon for us, so they're fine with it," he said. "Derrick Coleman used to argue with me a lot of the time. But he always did it, and he was good at it."

A bit of payback?

Brandon Triche said he did hear Thursday night from his uncle Howard, who was victimized by Keith Smart and the last-second shot that lifted Indiana over Syracuse in the 1987 NCAA championship game. Payback was not part of the message.

"He just said congrats on the win and keep it going. He didn't say anything about Indiana," said the younger Triche, a senior guard who had 14 points and four rebounds in the 61-50 win.

Boeheim added:"That's a lot of conversation for those two guys. That's like about three weeks [worth]."

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