There is a beauty in Syracuse's 2--3 zone that the Central New Yorkers who live for the 'Cuse can fully embrace. Like the city from whence it came, and by extension the man who coaches it, Jim Boeheim, the zone is straightforward, reliable and tough, a bedrock strategy that's bridged more than two decades of college basketball and is seemingly getting better with age. At last weekend's NCAA East Regional in Washington, D.C., Syracuse used the 2--3 zone to embarrass both Indiana and Marquette and reach the Final Four for the first time in a decade. In two wins the Orange allowed a total of 89 points and an aggregate 27.7% shooting, while forcing 33 turnovers and leaving Boeheim in a Verizon Center hallway to admire the feral beauty of his team's performance.
"I can't believe how good our defense has been in this tournament," he said, before delivering the trademark Boeheim shrug.
Indiana, the East region's No. 1 seed and regular-season Big Ten champions, struggled against a defense it had never seen. The Orange's zone held the Hoosiers to just 33.3% shooting, forcing 19 turnovers and blocking 10 shots in its 61--50 upset win. Still, Big East compatriot Marquette had beaten Syracuse 74--71 in late February and was intimately familiar with the Orange zone. Except this zone was better than the February version, holding Marquette to just eight points for nearly the first 14 minutes of the game in a 55--39 beatdown. "They had a lot more energy on defense," said Marquette junior forward Jamil Wilson, whose 1-for-9 shooting line was typical of the Golden Eagles.
Boeheim, who is in his 37th year as head coach at Syracuse, tinkered with various forms of zone and man-to-man defense for most of his career, but says that he fully committed to the 2--3 after a humiliating 82--79 exhibition loss to Division II Le Moyne, which is also located in Syracuse, in November 2009. Former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who coached against Boeheim for 26 years in the Big East, said of Boheim's defensive scheme, "Jim has [always] kept an incredible belief in the 2--3 zone. He knows how to make adjustments, and he recruits personnel to it."
The current version is fronted by spidery 6'6" sophomore Michael Carter-Williams and powerful 6'4" senior Brandon Triche. Stretched across the baseline are 6'8" junior C.J. Fair (left side), 6'9" sophomore Rakeem Christmas (middle) and 6'8" senior James Southerland (right side). Jerami Grant, a 6'8" freshman and Baye Moussa Keita, a 6'10" junior, come in off the bench. Together they are a sideline-to-sideline knot of hands and feet, clogging passing lanes and contesting shots.
There is a recruiting system at work as well. Some players, like Carter-Williams, are talented enough to fit into any system. Others, like Keita and Grant, are in the mold of former Orange star Hakim Warrick, players whose long wingspan and quickness have proved to be more important than bulk and power. "Some guys, other schools don't want, because they aren't physical, man-to-man defenders," said Boeheim. "But they're good for us."
What's also been good for Syracuse is how the 2--3 zone leaves little time for opponents to prepare for the attack, while the Orange has had plenty of time to refine its work. "We used to spend 20 or 30 minutes a day on the zone," says Boeheim. "Now we spend a lot more than that. In the tournament our opponents get a few days, and that's it" And for Michigan, which Syracuse will meet in the Final Four, the clock is ticking.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
GIMME THAT Southerland (far right) and the Orange's stifling 2--3 zone disrupted the Hoosiers' offense from start to finish.